A Philosopher's Blog

Unlimited Campaign Contributions

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 4, 2014
Official 2005 photo of Chief Justice John G. R...

Official 2005 photo of Chief Justice John G. Roberts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a young political science/philosophy major I learned about the various types of governments. Among these is the plutocracy—rule by the wealthy. I recall thinking, in my young anarchist days, that all governments were, are and will be plutocracies. After all, the rich always have influence proportional to their wealth and society tends to head in the direction desired by the wealthy. I was aware, of course, that there can be momentary disruptions of the plutocracy. For example, a rebellion or revolution might result in the old rich being killed, exiled or stripped of their wealth. However, history clearly shows that a new rich always emerges (or the old rich return). Even in the allegedly communist states, a wealthy class has always appeared. As such, the plutocratic system seems to be eternal.

As might be imagined, my cynical view was countered by some of my fellows—they insisted that America was a democracy and not a plutocracy. After all, it was argued, the rich do not always get their way in everything and money did not always decide elections. In fact, it was pointed out that there were strict restrictions on political spending. A plutocracy would obviously not have such limits.  As such, it was reasonable to conclude that my younger anarchist self was in error. But perhaps I was right after all—there is an ongoing trend to make America into a plutocracy by eliminating restrictions on political spending.

One major move in this regards was the Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited campaign spending by corporations on the grounds that corporations are people, spending is speech and people have a right to free speech. The idea that corporations are people can be easily disproven by a simple reduction ad absurdum: If corporations have the right to free speech because they are people, then they cannot be owned. After all, the constitution expressly forbids slavery (that is, the ownership of people). To contend that corporations can be owned yet are people who have freedom of speech is to either accept slavery or to fail to grasp the logical notion of consistency. So, a corporation can have freedom of speech, provided it is set free from being owned. Since it is blindingly obvious that corporations are things that can be justly owned, it should be blindingly obvious that they are not people. As such, they do not get freedom of speech. Naturally, the actual people associated with corporations have their right to freedom of speech. What remains is, of course, the matter of whether spending is speech or not.

The Supreme Court, or at least five of the current judges, holds that spending is speech. On 4/2/2014 the aggregate campaign contribution limits were struck down. This was based, not surprisingly, on the Citizens United ruling in 2010.  That ruling included the apparently absurd claim that the influence and access offered by such unlimited spending is not a concern in regards to corruption.

The case at hand was brought by Shaun McCutcheon—a very wealthy Republican donor. The impact of his victory is that a single donor, such as McCutcheon, will be able to contribute millions to parties, candidates and PACs. The ruling does leave some limits in place: an individual can give:  $2,600 per candidate, per election; $32,400 to political party committees per year; and $5,000 per PAC, per year. The main change is that there is no longer an overall cap to the total donations. Previously, a donor could not give more than $123,200 to all political committees, with limits of $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to political parties and PACs.

McCutcheon claims that this is a grassroots victory against the status quo:  “With the ruling, we continue to chip away at the long entrenched status quo from the grassroots—a status quo that has kept challengers, better ideas, and new entrants to the political arena mostly locked out. Ensuring that citizens are able to contribute to multiple candidates or causes who share their views only provides further support to a system in which ‘We the People’ hold the ultimate reins of power.”

This seems like an odd claim, given that it primarily benefits those who are wealthy enough to make such donations as opposed to the average citizen who will lack the funds to take advantage of this ruling. This ruling would seem to weaken what little grasp the people still have on the reins of power and give the very wealthy a stronger grip. Not surprisingly, this ruling will be a boon for the Republican party. In recent years it has done poorly with small donors (that is, the vast majority of the citizens) and relies very heavily on large donors. This ruling will allow the Republicans to greatly reduce the need for grassroots financial support and instead rely on a few very wealthy donors for financial support. While it is true that the Democrats also have their wealthy supporters, the Democrats rely more heavily on large numbers of small donations.

As might be imagined, there are concerns that this ruling will lead to increased corruption and increased influence on politics by the wealthy. On the face of it, these seem to be the obvious consequences of lifting such restrictions and allowing the money to flow more freely into politics. After all, the original purpose of the restrictions was to address problems with corruption and influence buying. While those who support it insist that corruption and influence buying will not be increased (which seems patently false and unsupported by evidence) they also appeal to a core principle, namely that of freedom. As Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner said, “What I think this means is freedom of speech is being upheld. Donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give.”

The basic issue, then, is whether such spending is speech.  In regards to spending being free speech, that seems dubious. Suppose that spending money for political purposes is considered speech. Now, it is clearly acceptable to try to persuade a politician by speaking to him or her. If spending is speech, then I should be able to try to persuade politicians by speaking to them with money. However, this sort of thing already has a name, specifically bribery. But, if spending is a form of free speech, it would seem that bribery should be acceptable as a form of free speech. This seems absurd, to say the least.

It might be countered that the contributions cannot be direct bribes in that there can be no direct giving of money in return for specific actions or promises to act. However, it would be extremely naive to believe that campaign financing is not intended to do just that—namely to influence behavior by providing money and support. After all, it would seem rather ludicrous to imagine that millionaires and billionaires would donate millions of dollars and expect nothing in return. While this is not logically impossible, it is exceptionally unlikely.

However, suppose that spending is taken as a form of speech and thus protected by the right of free expression. It does not, of course, follow that such speech should be free of limits. After all, limits are justly placed on speech in other cases. The stock example is the yelling of “fire” in a crowded theater in which there is no fire. In the case of allowing this sort of spending, it would do serious harm to the political process by increasing the influence of an individual based on his wealth and thus proportionally decreasing the influence of those who are less wealthy. To use an analogy, it is on par with having a public discussion in which the wealthy are allowed to use a powerful sound systems up on the stage and less wealthy individuals are expected to try to shout out their views from the crowd.

To counter arguments like this, Roberts made an analogy to newspaper endorsements. As he said, there is no limit to the number of candidates a newspaper can endorse. As such, by analogy, it should follow that there should not be a limit on the number of candidates a person can donate money to. There are two easy and obvious replies. The first is to go back to the original argument that spending is not speech. While a newspaper endorsement is clearly speech—it is the expression of ideas and views, handing people money does not seem to qualify as an expression of ideas and views. When I buy a pair of running shoes or pay my entry to a race, I am not engaged in expression—I am trading money for goods and services. Likewise, when a person donates to a political cause, they are trading money for goods and services. But, if it is accepted that spending is speech, there is still a significant difference. A newspaper endorsement works by persuasion—one is either swayed by it or not. In contrast, large sums of money have far more impact: money allows people to become viable candidates and it allows them to run campaigns. As such, the influence of money is clearly more significant than the influence of a newspaper endorsement and this increases the likelihood of corruption.

This returns to the corruption issue. My contention is that such a flow of money will lead to corruption and grant the wealthy even more influence, while reducing the political influence of the less wealthy even more. The competing claim is that allowing this sort of spending will not have any negative impact. Given the usual effect of large sums of money, I would claim that increased corruption seems to be the likely outcome. However, I will consider any arguments and evidence to the contrary.


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18 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on April 4, 2014 at 8:20 am

    Mike, corporations clearly have a form of personhood.

    Mozilla just pledged itself as a corporation to marriage equality.

    Here is the CEO of Apple: “When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI,” Cook said, adding that the same sentiment applied to environmental and health and safety issues.

    Clearly corporations have values and a stake in social issues that extends beyond the bottom line. Mike, do you really deny this?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 4, 2014 at 11:18 am

      My reductio holds. I totally deny corporate personhood.

      Corporations do not have values-they are legal fictions, the actual people that make the decisions and statements have values. I’m fine with the harmless use of the collective term. So, when I say “FAMU values excellence with caring”, I just mean “people who make up the group that is called FAMU claim to value excellence with caring.” To think that such entities have values or mental states is to fall into the fallacy of reification.

      Institutional values is just shorthand for the values of the actual people. Sure, statements of value can be written down on paper and professed as institutional values-but, values do not exist outside the mind. Values depend on mental states, corporations do not have mental states. Thus, they have no values-since they are not even a they. It is like claiming that McDonald’s is sad. Or gay. Or angry. Or in love. The reification is obvious in those cases.

      The people who see themselves as a collective under the name “Mozilla” can have values and views, but there is no actual entity that is Mozilla. Sure, there are legal entities-just as there are movie and other fictional entities (like dragons). But, they do not exist in the proper meaning of existence. Unless, of course, you endorse the view that fictional entities exist-which some philosophers do. One does not add to the sum of reality by creating corporations-anymore than one adds to the population by making up fictional characters.

      • apollonian said, on April 4, 2014 at 11:37 am

        Yes Mike, good analysis u do here. Corp.s MUST be reduced for the basic, original purpose of limited liability in case of law suits and economic purposes–corp.s must NOT NOT NOT be given privileges or rights above those of real people.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on April 4, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Corporations also endorse political candidates. Newspapers publish unsigned editorials all the time. News media have free speech rights as corporations.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 4, 2014 at 11:28 am

      People endorse political candidates. People write editorials and publish them. Individuals have free speech rights as individuals. Show me a corporation that writes. Or builds. Whatever you point to, will just be people writing or building. To steal and modify an old line, “I see the people, Socrates, but I do not see the corporation.”

      The delusion that corporations and states are people/real entities is dangerous. When it comes to states, it is fascism (or “communism”). That never turns out well. Likewise for the reification (or deification) of lesser collectives such as corporations.

      I’m an individualist-rights rest on the individual, not the collective. Down with fascism. Down with communism. Down with corporatism.

      • apollonian said, on April 4, 2014 at 11:33 am

        Yes, corporations are surely a problem nowadays, even though the original idea–limited liability for legal/economic purposes is not bad. T. Jefferson wrote about these corp.s, mere instruments for the oligarchs of his own day.

        Key is corp. power and privilege must be carefully defined according to law, and can NEVER properly exceed the rights of real people–as they do today, so horribly.

  3. apollonian said, on April 4, 2014 at 11:28 am

    Spending Is Indubitably A Problem, But “Limits” Are NOT Genuine Solution–Constituencies Per Office Must Rather Be Reduced

    I agree w. Mike there’s certainly a problem. How can individuals, real people, be limited for their spending/contributions but not corp.s which we’ve all come to hate so cordially?–almost as cordially as their owners/controllers, the Jews who just literally print-up all the money, practically, they want or need (through the US Federal Reserve Bank)? Thus it really does seem these stinking, filthy corp.s have been raised up over real people.

    Answer, of course, is there should be no limits on people, hence no limits on corp.s either, for after all if corp.s have rights, people must. FREEDOM means freedom–one should be able to act and spend as one pleases.

    Spending doesn’t have to be same as speech–spending is action which action must be free like any other sort of non-violent action by the people, speaking or otherwise. Spending is necessary part of expression for getting opinions into newspapers, etc.

    The real problem is rather in the structure of office–the fewer the number of office-holders, the easier to bribe them–and yes, campaign contributions can be used as form of bribery. So we simply need a broader, hence greater, number of office-holders, esp. for House of Reps.

    US Senators should be elected by the state legislatures as originally intended (up to 1913) in order to reflect best the interests of the states.

    US Representatives now have, on average, about 600,000 + constituents–this is too many–making it easier for sheer weight of spending to overcome opponents w. less ability to spend. Number of constituents must be small enough so that candidates can get around by foot and in-person to speak to people, this in way of off-setting the sheer power of spending money, as for newspaper, TV, and radio ads, for example.

    As I recall, the original US Constitution made for about 50,000 constituents per representative–even this made it too easy for sheer masses of money to prevail, I’m afraid. Problem then would be the huge mass of legislators, but this could be treated, for example, by means of a lottery system on any given day for those enabled to cast votes.

    So Mike hits upon a genuine, serious issue, but his analysis only needs a little more clarity for proper solution–spending limits are NOT the solution. Making the elections relevant and accessible for smaller numbers of constituents per office is the way to go–best off-setting the advantage of greater spending.

  4. Nicole said, on April 4, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    I agree with you about the problem of money in politics. I also agree that corporations are not people. The combination of those two things has created the mutated political system we have today. I would add to that the after-office payoff of careers in companies where oversight was conducted during office or campaign contributions were given.

    However, I have to disagree with you about the concept of limiting the contributions that an individual can make. I do, utterly and completely agree that the money in politics is the main problem, however I cannot get on board with the idea of telling people that they cannot give away their own money to whomever they like, or that they cannot spend their money on advertisements or other types of products which they would otherwise find themselves perfectly legally able to purchase.

    I think that, instead of limiting our rights as individuals to dispose of and dispense our property in whatever way we see fit, we should put the burden on the politicians. We have an extensive system of enacting governmental guidelines upon our governmental bureaucracy, proverbial red-tape as it were, and I think we should use that to fix the problem. The politicians are effectively starting the job application process as soon as they announce candidacy, so it would be reasonable to extend the red-tape to that portion of the process.

    Politicians should have new rules placed upon them which restrict how much money they can spend in the course of attempting to become a government official. That figure would have to be some small fraction of what they spend now, and equivalent offices would all have the same limits. Higher offices could have higher limits. We could even annually adjust those numbers for inflation to be fair. Of course, it would have to include non-cash equivalent value of gifts received. The burden of controlling money spent by supporters would have to fall on the politician they are spending it on.

    That said, there is still the problem of receiving pay-offs on the back-end of a political career for favors done in the office. I think we could also extend the money influence past the point that they leave their position in government. For instance, something like a clause which requires them not to accept paid work for anyone they conducted oversight for or accepted campaign donations from during the 3-year period after leaving office.

    It may not be a perfect solution, but I much prefer putting the restrictions on the person who is attempting to join the political ranks than putting blanket restrictions on how people can spend their own money.

    • apollonian said, on April 5, 2014 at 11:15 am

      Nicole: adding more rules and complexity isn’t the solution. Better, as I note, above, to simply reduce the number of constituents per office–this allows competitors to get around in-person, knocking on doors and speaking extemporaneously, which would reduce the advantages of sheer amount of money and enhance competitiveness among candidates regardless the money.

      Yes, there’d be problem for number of office-holders, but that could be treated, say by means of a lottery for who votes that day, or week. The larger the number of constituents per office, the more effective the larger amount of money to be spent–this is the real problem, one of the special problems of US Senate elections, for example–which was the very purpose of the Senate election reform made in 1913 by the oligarchs, who KNEW what they were doing.

  5. T. J. Babson said, on April 4, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    Mike, freedom of the press cannot exist unless corporations have 1st amendment rights. You need to think this through.

  6. TJB said, on April 4, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    Mike, you posted a picture of Oprah earlier in the week. She endorsed Obama on her TV network in 2008. What was that endorsement worth? Why should she be allowed to do that but it is wrong for someone who does not have a TV show to buy airtime?

    • WTP said, on April 4, 2014 at 10:55 pm

      TJ, you’re taking Mike’s arguments at face value. Mike, and I actually say this in kindness, like many in academia is an unwitting sophist tool of the political leftists. Did you see the link I posted a week ago or so? The largest contributors to political campaigns are unions and similar organizations. Their obsession with “money in politics” is a load of slanted BS. They’re not concerned about money in politics. They know that the LIVs you speak of associate money with Rethuglicans and thus money can continue to be shoveled to the Dems behind this smoke screen.

      Also to yor point about Oprah, what is the value of 24/7 MSNBC as a mouthpiece for the Dems? Not to mention CBS, ABC, CNN, the Washington Posrt, NY Times, yada-yada-yada. And yet these same people pine for the return of the “Fairness Doctrine”.

    • magus71 said, on April 6, 2014 at 11:54 am

      She was worth 1 million votes to Obama, according to studies. The low information voter is as big a ivesproblem as any in our democracy.


      And yes, teachers unions give more money to campaigns than does Exxon. But who’d know it by the news?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 8, 2014 at 3:19 pm

        I would hope teachers’ unions gave more money. There are 3.7 million K-12 teachers in the US and 76,900 Exxon employees. As such, the teachers unions represent a much larger block.

        But, I am also concerned about unlimited labor union contributions and their corrupting influence on politics.

        • WTP said, on April 8, 2014 at 9:00 pm

          You will note how Mike fails to note that about half of that number are in unions and about a third are forced to pay dues that the union uses to influence politicians in direct opposition to what many of those same teachers believe or want. Mike is only interested in numbers that he likes. Never minding that even his point is fallacious reasoning.

  7. T. J. Babson said, on April 5, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    Facts are stubborn things.

    Free Speech: Right after the Supreme Court’s decision to lift limits on campaign contributions, Democrats and their left-wing supporters assaulted the decision as a boon to Republicans, “the party of the rich.”

    This of course is part of a far-wider narrative — slavishly repeated by largely unquestioning liberal media — that the GOP outspends Democrats on campaigns thanks to big-buck donors like the billionaire Koch brothers.

    But, as it turns out, that’s a lie — as big a lie, in fact, as “you can keep your insurance,” “you can keep your doctor” and “ObamaCare will bend the cost curve down.”

    By almost every measure, in fact, it’s the Democrats, not the Republicans, who are the party of the rich.

    Start with Congress itself. Who are the wealthiest members? Well, there are 269 millionaires among Congress’ 535 members. And most of them are Democrats.

    And contrary to the hand-wringing on the left about the Supreme Court’s 5-4 McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling Wednesday, Democrats far outspend Republicans on elections. It isn’t even close.

    According to OpenSecrets.org, from 1989 to 2014 rich donors gave Democrats $1.15 billion — $416 million more than the $736 million given to the GOP. Among the top 10 donors to both parties, Democrat supporters outspent Republican supporters 2-to-1.

    But what about the villainous Koch brothers, those conservative plutocrats supposedly seeking to control American politics? They rank 59th on the list of big givers — behind 18 unions and No. 1 Act Blue, the massive left-wing fund raiser that gives only to Democrats.


    • apollonian said, on April 5, 2014 at 3:55 pm

      Dems and Reps, tweedledee and tweedledum, BOTH of them pawns of Jews and Bilderberg, Trilaterals, CFR, Dems getting 70% of funds fm Jews, Reps getting 35%.

  8. apollonian said, on April 7, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    Doubt Jews dominate election process?–ck this story about Sheldon Adelson, casino mogul, who held a virtual primary recently in Las Vegas, and lo and behold the Republican whores duly came and paid court: http://www.infowars.com/they-think-they-know-how-to-pick-successful-presidential-candidates/

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