Friday, January 22, 2010

The Supreme Court's Ruling on Campaign Finance Laws

Sweeping aside a century-old understanding and overruling two important precedents, a bitterly divided Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.

The ruling was a vindication, the majority said, of the First Amendment’s most basic free speech principle — that the government has no business regulating political speech.
So, the Court's view is that campaign finance regulation (at least the part addressed in yesterday's decision) is not constitutional. I am not a lawyer, but that view sounds right to me.  Let's put aside the constitutional issue, however, and ask whether campaign finance regulation would be good policy if it were constitutional?

The standard argument for such regulation rests on four claims:

1. that spending by politicians affects their likelihood of election;

2. that contributions to political campaigns affect the policies a politician supports;

3. that these influences on political outcomes are undesirable;

4. and that regulation successfully limits money’s influence on these outcomes.
Claims 1 and 2 are oft-overstated, but they probably have some validity. 

Claim 3, however, is probably backwards. Money lines up on one side of an issue because a larger economic pie supports that side. Special interests do support bad policies, including corporate welfare, tariffs and quotas, agricultural subsidies, wasteful weapons programs, and pork pork-barrel spending, but money often causes better policies, not worse; free trade is an excellent example.

Claim 4 is even less convincing: politicians and special interests can circumvent most regulation.

So, campaign finance regulation's main goal is not compelling, and the regulation does not achieve that goal anyway.  Instead, the regulation protects incumbents and rewards politicians who exploit loopholes in the law.  The Court's decision is good economics, as well as good law.



I think a crucial point here that seems to be missing is why such a ruling is important.

Advocates of this ruling see this as a victory of free speech; whereas, opponents see it as a liscence for corruption.

I think the larger point here is that there should be a seperation of gov't and economy. That is, the problem is not whether corporations, individual people, etc should have the right to spend their dollars to advocate for a particular position through advertisements, movies, etc (i.e., free speech), but that gov't should not be able to influence the economy. If that was the case (a) opponents wouldn't have anything to worry about because candidates elected couldn't "pay back" those who invested their dollars in their campaign by pork-barrel spending, special favors, or favorable regulations and (b) as a result, the issue of limiting free speech through campaign contributions would not be an issue.

I guess my problem with opponents of this ruling is that most of them don't want gov't to get in bed with big business, but find it unfathonable that a market would opperate without wise regulation from our leaders.

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