Is freedom of speech expanded by limiting the ability to raise and spend money on speech? That’s what Professor Jessica A. Levinson argues in a recent commentary in The Sacramento Bee (“Expand free speech by limiting political money”; Viewpoints, Sept. 21).
“Imagine a world in which … independent expenditures are … limited to reasonable levels. ... Money does not influence nearly every stage of the political process – from who runs for office to what is discussed in political campaigns, to (sometimes) who is elected, to which bills are written, introduced and voted on. It’d be a wonderful world.”
Not so fast. Limits do not reduce the influence of wealth – they cause it to migrate somewhere else.
As a result, attempts to “get money out of politics” quickly descend to regulation of every form of speech and ever more complex rules to prevent “evasion.” Even if you reversed the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision and limited candidate and Super PAC spending, other levers of influence exist.
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Wealth influences academe, media corporations, celebrities, filmmakers and authors who shape public opinion. Experts – think-tank analysts, pollsters and lobbyists – can be hired. Everyone wants politics to be driven by public opinion and professional expertise, but money is a major ingredient in both.
Money in politics would not go away in Levinson’s world; it would just come from different and likely more hidden sources, and might even increase as lawyers and campaign managers became a prerequisite for political participation. Ordinary citizens would avoid forming small groups, boxed out by the maze of rules.
A smarter way to improve government is for challengers to mount competitive campaigns against incumbents, and let the voters decide who speaks for them. Unfortunately, that’s rare: Just 1 in 7 House races was competitive in 2012.
Raising or eliminating contribution limits could help change that. Challengers are often starved for resources, and low limits strangle their hopes to compete against incumbents who benefit from free media exposure. The concern about large contributions – the risk of corruption – is misplaced. No correlation exists between states’ contribution limits and their corruption rates, and 12 states allow unlimited contributions from individuals to state candidates.
Don’t get suckered into playing whack-a-mole with money in politics. The First Amendment freedom to speak without government interference is not a threat to democracy; it is the foundation of democracy, and it has served us well for over 200 years.