Campaign Finance, Again
As if to follow up my blog post from last week, the Post-Dispatch ran an editorial today highlighting the pervasive problem of moneyed interests exercising influence over elected officials. Naturally, the editorial board calls for the return of strict campaign finance regulations.
The board misses three very important points. The first is that campaign finance laws curtail peoples’ constitutional freedoms. The second is that big-money campaign contributors tend to be very smart, meaning that they can figure out how to use their funds in such a way that they get the influence they want without necessarily running afoul of any laws. And, third, campaign finance laws are made by people with every incentive to create loopholes, soften consequences, and make life more difficult for candidates (especially third-party candidates) who might try to unseat them.
The most important of these three points is the constitutional issue. The First Amendment guarantees citizens’ freedoms of expression and association. As the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly pointed out, these protections are most vital when political ideas are the motivation behind a given expression or association. Not only do campaign finance laws curtail expression (by restricting what someone can express, when they may express it, and what means they can use to express it) and impose barriers to association (by denying citizens the right to pool their resources or to offer their resources for someone else’s use), they do so precisely because that expression or association has political motivations. This turns upside-down the most fundamental elements of the First Amendment’s protections.
We must not be willing to sacrifice liberty in the name of “protecting” the political process. As I argued last week, the better policy would be for those who are worried about the evils illustrated in the Post-Dispatch editorial should use the political process itself as a weapon against those who engage in those sordid behaviors. Such a solution would not only deal with the problem far more directly than letting lawmakers craft toothless, self-interest-driven laws that can be twisted (or avoided) to suit their desires, it would do so while preserving — and, perhaps, enhancing — the freedoms that this nation is supposed to cherish above all others.