First they came for the donor lists …
“Don’t we all have a right to know,” asks Obama campaign manager Jim Messina in a recent fundraising email, “exactly which corporations and individuals are spending millions in attack ads to influence elections — and what their agendas are?” While we should expect this type of rhetoric from bullies who think that the government should force workers to give up their right to a secret ballot in unionization proceedings, making it easier for Democratic supporters to rake new campaign funds from their peers’ paychecks, this is one of those times when “No” is a complete, forceful, and declarative sentence.
But in fairness to Messina, to whom I wish a swift and humiliating trip to the unemployment line this November, we should (for a moment) take his claim at face value. We should ask, “Upon what moral principle” — we’re talking about rights, after all — “is this ‘right to know’ predicated?”
Perhaps Messina took pages from liberal Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz’s playbook. “[T]his theory of rights is a theory of wrongs,” wrote Dershowitz in Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights. We derive our rights in Dershowitz’s world from “… the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, the Stalinist starvation and purges, the Holocaust, the Cambodian slaughter, and other abuses that reasonable people now recognize to have been wrongs.” Setting aside for a moment what an old professor of mine likes to call the “Heideggerian ‘we’” voice with which Dershowitz writes (the “me and my reader who obviously agrees with me, because no rational person would disagree” voice), Messina could here be attempting to derive the “right to know” from injustices suffered by some individuals at the hands of other individuals and corporations.
This is a logical misstep that requires extraordinary, perverted mental gymnastics. Public policy — from labor policy and generous entitlements to environmental policy and financial regulation — has already largely addressed the injustices perpetrated on some individuals by other individuals and corporations. Workers today enjoy rights to overtime pay, or to not be sent down a mine, canary in hand, as a child. Citizens living near factories today largely enjoy a right to breathe clean air and to drink clean water. Citizen victims of Bernie Madoff’s investment schemes enjoy the right to restitution, and are protected by Freedom of Information Act requirements that compel financial firms to disclose certain beneficial transactions. Thus, it remains unclear from where Messina derives this “right to know” — never mind that losing a presidential election in and of itself in no way imperils Messina’s rights, or those of the president’s supporters.
Dershowitz also wrote, “[T]he First Amendment is premised on the idea that there should be a free marketplace of ideas. Private universities, for example, are not constrained by the Constitution, but most choose to follow it anyway, because they recognize that the exchange of ideas — no matter how wrongheaded or obnoxious — is good for education. By accepting this model of open discourse, no university,” or in our case, no political campaign, “can reasonably claim to be ‘dishonored’ by views expressed by students or faculty members …” or in our case, by the president’s detractors paying for political communications that espouse their personal views on a larger scale. If Messina borrowed Dershowitz’s playbook, he must have forgotten this very important page.
My favorite Founding Father, James Madison, the architect of our Constitution, warned us in The Federalist No. 10 against the “mischiefs of faction,” or political turmoil wrought by “… a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common pulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Perhaps Messina assumes as given that some individuals and corporations have it out for both the rights of other individuals and the interests of the nation, and that campaign finance disclosure would somehow mitigate their effects. This view would require a Herculean defense.
Corporations provide value to two important cross-sections of the economy, making everyone better off: shareholders and consumers. By organizing labor and capital in response to price signals and consumer feedback, corporations provide both returns on investors’ risked capital, and offer goods and services to consumers at prices they’re willing to pay. But even this belies the point! Even if corporations somehow willfully oppose the rights of other people, what gives Messina and company a right to know what corporation managers’ and other wealthy persons’ electoral agendas are? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with corporations’ policy agendas? There is a vast difference in the impact on society between campaign expenditures and lobbying expenditures; the latter are far more dangerous to our rights and our aggregate well being, as the fields of game theory and public choice teach us. Just ask any leftist who shouted “HALLIBURTON!” at any point between 9/11 and January 2009.
Madison also wrote that the only two ways to deal with factions are to either destroy “the liberty which is essential to [their] existence” or to foist upon “every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” Are Messina and the president prepared to openly commit to the former in an election year? In a way, yes: David Axelrod recently promised Obama supporters that, in a second term, the president would move to effectively repeal First Amendment rights affirmed by the Supreme Court in Citizens United. The casual, shallow use of moral language in fundraising appeals suggests the campaign is at least committed to the latter of Madison’s alternatives. But our question is still unanswered: Upon what moral principle is this ‘right to know’ predicated?
I yearn for a full-throated defense of this position, yet my liberal friends routinely fail to provide me with one.
The Framers understood quite well that a time would eventually come when the United States government would become so large it would need to encroach on individual liberty to sustain itself, bringing all the force of law and arms to bear upon its endeavors. The Founders had the whole of recorded human history (as we do, and more!) from which to deduce their conclusions. Thus, they drafted institutions with very specific, enumerated powers, and they framed those institutions in our Constitution. They designed this document to shield citizens from abuses of power that would be cloaked in moralistic language. Sadly, those in power, including Senator Incumbent Protection, have many allies in the progressive media who happily gaze into their navels, wondering why society hasn’t been able to destroy liberty more quickly to achieve desired political outcomes.
Do not expect this age-old fight to dissipate in the foreseeable future. But do please join me in calling out those who would lord judgment of our moral character over us if we do not agree with them over our right to participate in the political process without fear of intimidation or retribution from our opponents — a right justly derived from wrongs that litter human history.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that victims of Bernie Madoff’s crimes have a right to sit as jurors in his trial.