How to get money out of politics

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Something is bothering progressive Washington Post columnist and chief Citizens United v. FEC loather E.J. Dionne. On one hand, he’s profoundly happy to see New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spend $12 million advocating gun-control legislation. On the other, well, there’s Citizens United, which he detests. In the end, Dionne concludes he’s not a hypocrite, but his assertions are rife with inconsistent and fallacious logic. And for all his introspection, Dionne ignores the simplest way to remove the danger of “big money” in politics and still maintain the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution: attenuate government involvement in our lives.

Dionne is concerned about what he perceives as the deleterious effects of large sums of money being spent on politics, and he believes some of that spending is a byproduct of Citizens United.

It’s true that candidates and other political groups spent considerably more in 2012, after the 2010 Citizens United ruling striking down restrictions on independent political expenditures by corporations and unions, than in 2008, before the ruling. But it is difficult to see why this is such a problem for Dionne or others in the speech-restriction camp.

Jim Bopp, the attorney in Citizens United and another campaign finance case before the Supreme Court this October, explained the current state of affairs well in a radio interview last year. Rich people advocate different positions on every issue; they are simply doing what everyone else is: picking a side and trying to persuade the public that their side is right. When they speak, they do so not just for themselves but for all like-minded people who lack the time, inclination, or resources to similarly advocate.

The most recent Republican presidential primaries demonstrated this. Because of wealthy donors, party members had a lengthy debate about what it means to be a Republican, what principles and values define the party. The debate was too long for some political consultants and perhaps harmed the eventual nominee. But it was good for the party in the long term. Liberty requires political parties to undergo sometimes-painful identity appraisals.

The big issue in Washington right now is gun control. Dionne is concerned the National Rifle Association is successfully shaping public opinion on the issue. He attributes this success to the “gun manufacturers” and the “gun lobby” indiscriminately brandishing money and bullying legislators. But the NRA draws its power not from shadowy corporate puppet masters but from its 4 million-strong membership. Indeed, a hit piece by Bloomberg’s own media empire could only account for $15 million in corporate contributions from an NRA operating budget of over $200 million.

As Justice Thurgood Marshall once wrote, groups of people spending money to influence policy isn’t a corruption of democracy, it is democracy. Bloomberg amassed his fortune outside the world of ideas and his political influence derives not from a millions-strong voluntary association but from corporate wealth. But that in no way should bar him from putting forth his views in this debate.

If senators such as Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor cast their lot with the chancellor of salt and sugar, they will do so at their own peril; Bloomberg himself has said as much. But regardless of the political implications, the enormous variety of voices being heard in the gun debate is precisely what the First Amendment is supposed to protect and nurture.

All this freedom is too much for Dionne, however. He would prefer to have the government maintain strict controls on the ability of corporations to persuade — well, except when it comes to the corporation that employs him, and which gives him an enormous public platform.

Fortunately for Dionne, there’s a simple way to alleviate his concerns and still allow for the robust protection of First Amendment freedoms: reduce the scope of government. The less government regulates our lives, the less money people will spend trying to influence it.

If we roll back the 80-year-old administrative and regulatory state, all the money that today goes into trying to influence elections and government decisions will instead be invested in the private sector, where it belongs, satisfying Dionne and lovers of liberty alike.

Paul H. Jossey is a lawyer living in Alexandria, Virginia. His interests include First Amendment issues and environmental policy.