Who's corrupting whom with political spending?
This week opened with news that Montana's Attorney General filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to revisit the 2010 Citizens United decision and give Montana's restrictive campaign finance laws a pass. With all due respect, I think our AG is either stuck in a time warp or doesn't understand the basics of a marketplace and especially a marketplace of influence or ideas.
Montana's campaign finance laws date back to when copper barons outright owned much of our state's legislature and most of its media outlets. The argument that those conditions could be re-created in the internet age and in a widely diversified and dispersed state economy seems like a longer stretch than Westby to Whitefish.
History aside, the basic argument against political spending is that it's corruptive and provides undue influence to those with more money, and especially those rich, evil corporations. Well, I'm as much against evil corporations as the next guy, but most of them aren't evil. My friend's family farm organized as an S-Corp isn't evil. Nonprofits organized as public benefit corporations aren't evil, at least not all of them. It's an inconvenient fact, but the vast majority of corporations are just small businesses trying to get by.
They're simple groups of people or families organized as legal entities for tax, liability, or estate reasons. Restricting their free speech rights just because they choose to associate or become affiliated with other people who share their interests isn't just unconstitutional, it's morally wrong and damaging to our republican form of government.
Our right to free speech isn't protected to talk about the blueness of the sky or to sing "Kumbaya" out of key. It's protected to allow dissenting and unpopular voices to be heard. And in our society of mass media, speech takes money. Restricting spending restricts speech.
In the rare and difficult to prove cases where money is spent with a quid pro quo involved, we have laws for that. But who's to say that someone is paying to send a message based on ideals or interests? Or that those things are necessarily at odds? Would owning a business disqualify me from speaking up about free enterprise?
All we do by restricting speech is protect those who already have megaphones in place. That's one reason why members of Congress enjoy an 85 percent to 95 percent re-election rate with a 10 percent to 15 percent approval rating. Campaign finance laws should really be called incumbent protection laws, as they erect enormous barriers to any new voices or interests.
And, anyway, all that's beside the point if it's corruption that sticks in your craw. The problem we're having with undue influence — and there is a problem — isn't that there's too much money in politics; it's that there's too much politics in money. So long as the government is large and powerful enough to pick winners and losers people will always find a way to either get on the winners' list or stay off the losers' list. One is influence peddling, the other a protection racket. Passing more laws will just require more lawyers and consultants, creating even more barriers to individual voices.
Every voluntary transaction has a willing buyer, a willing seller, and a product. When it comes to money in politics we tend to focus solely on the buyer — the contributor or lobbyist. We spend little time looking at the seller — the politician or bureaucrat. And we completely ignore the product — the influence that money buys. But without the product you'll have neither a buyer nor a seller. Get rid of what George Will calls the political allocation of wealth and opportunity — government's ability to threaten or guarantee people's livelihoods, lives, and basic rights — and there would be no need to regulate how much the buyer can spend or the seller can accept. There wouldn't be any buyers or sellers. Anything else is just regulating corruption at some tolerable level; and what is more corrupt than a political system that guarantees those in power stay in power.
We spend less on campaigns in this country than we do on potato chips. If there's a class of people out there who wield enough influence to make our lives meaningful or miserable depending on what share of our potato chip budget we send their way, then maybe we should be looking at restricting what they're selling and not those whom they compel to pay.
(Carl Graham is chief executive officer of Montana Policy Institute, a Bozeman-based think tank.)