Monday, March 1, 2010

More on Money and Politics

For the opposite point of view from my own on this Supreme Court, I would point you to this piece by libertarian Will Wilkinson. Wilkinson does a good job characterizing the liberal logic on the decision. He goes on to say we should applaud the ruling because the law, as it pertains to free speech, is very clear. "The trouble is, the First Amendment is written in stubbornly plain language. By honoring the simple letter of that law, the Citizens United decision dealt a crushing blow to this progressive project, leaving them wailing as if all were lost." I think the flow of money in political elections is pretty questionable as far as free speech, especially when we start extending free-speech rights to imagined entities, ie corporations. For more of this argument, see my piece for the Michigan Independent, as well as this piece from slate.
Wilkinson goes on to discuss three "progressive fallacies" on this issue.
First, progressives mischaracterize the nature of corporations. Corporations are not essentially villainous agglomerations of money and power. They are a convenient form of social organization that enables large numbers of people to undertake cooperative endeavors. Non-profit corporations, like Citizens United or the ACLU, provide individuals the opportunity to amplify their lone voices in harmony with like-minded others. Meanwhile, for-profit corporations are little more than lenders’ co-ops – a way for people to pool their resources to finance what look to be profitable lines of business. It is true that managers of corporations can -- and do -- take advantage of their owners and creditors. But there is a staggering number and diversity of for-profit corporations, and most of them, most of the time, do right by their stakeholders. Moreover, very few ever get involved in electoral politics in a significant way.

This seems to me a problematic objection. Even if we accept everything Wilkinson says about the essentially benign nature of corporations (which seems to me wrong, a group of individuals banded together in the search for profits can be a sinister entity), this seems to me scant reason to grant these agglomerations special rights that citizens are already allowed. Further, it is very clear when one looks at the way pharmaceuticals, insurance companies and large banks have played in the recent legislation, the role of corporations is in the political process is outsized. Wilkinson addresses this concern in his second point:
Which points to a second progressive error: the tendency to fixate on the high drama of elections rather than the more mundane processes by which corporate and other special interests actually do rig legislation and regulation in their favor. A single lobbyist with a good friend in the right place can deliver more to a special interest than many millions spent on campaign advertising. In 2009, $3.47 billion was spent on federal lobbying – a large sum, certainly, but not when you consider that the stimulus bill alone dispensed nearly $800 billion in public funds.

This also seems at first reasonable until one realizes that the reason that lobbying is so effective is that lobbyists hold the strings to possible campaign funds. Now, it is far from the case that all influence-peddling in Washington is the result of campaign contributions, but enough of it is that it doesn't make sense to dismiss it by simply pointing to the lobbyists who often enable it.
This brings us to our final "progressive fallacy":

But the granddaddy of all progressive errors – the one that breeds all others -- is the assumption that greater government power can rectify the problem of unequal citizen power. Government can only act as a “countervailing force” in this regard if it is not acting already to serve corporate and special interests. But it is. That is why new government powers merely augment, rather than offset, the already disproportionate power of entrenched interests.

This is in part pretty reasonable, the state is admittedly a very flawed vessel for changing the way that groups influence the state. On the other hand, if, as this argument pre-supposes, the state is already a under the sway of special interests, I don't think the argument necessarily follows that one must give up hope of using it to regulate interests. The best way to curb these interests would be for civic-minded people to fight a few key battles to attempt to limit these interests, rather than having to fight on every issue. Often, campaign finance reform does not work for the reasons outline (McCain-Feingold has not been an overly successful piece of legislation), but the answer is to attempt to fight to limit the interests in smarter ways, like providing public financing for elections, not by simply acknowledging that the state will always be hostage to special interests.