Free Advocacy Versus Equal Say
New York State has a law that limits a person to make no more than an aggregate of $150,000 in contributions to political action committees, or PACs, during any calendar year. With the New York City mayoral election coming up, the New York Progress and Protection PAC challenged that limit. Today they won.
The PAC contended that it had a donor who wanted to give $200,000 for the PAC to run ads in favor of Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota. Today, the federal appeals court in Manhattan issued an injunction lifting New York State’s $150,000 limit. Here are the reactions of people on the two sides, as recounted by the New York Times:
The president of the Center for Individual Rights said, “With this decision, New York City voters will now get a more democratic mayoral race, one with an even financial playing field. This will result in a campaign where ideas speak rather than money.”
The executive director of Common Cause New York said, “Elections should empower the free expression of all voices, and not just act as auctions where office is sold to the highest bidder.”
I think I understand the two sides of the issue well enough. Advocates of free spending believe that spending limits amount to limits on free speech, and that a person’s spending on political issues or candidates should not be limited. Advocates of spending limits believe that free spending gives the votes of well-to-do people more power than the votes of less-well-off people, and that in a democracy the weight of a person’s views should be determined by the quality of the expression of the person’s ideas, not by the person’s wealth.
I come down firmly on the side of equal say. Over the decades I’ve read many an argument for the proposition that politicians aren’t swayed by campaign contributions, but I don’t buy it. And money is rarely distributed equally on both sides of a political issue or a political campaign. But even if we suppose that executive actions and legislative votes are not influenced by campaign contributions, the underlying problem that won’t go away is that the unrestrained flow of money in politics creates a bitter and corrosive cynicism among the public about elections, about politicians, and about government.
There is a conceivable state of facts such that unlimited campaign contributions would level the playing field. In that world, everyone has equal access to money. If everyone has the same financial resources, or at least close to the same, then everyone is free to decide how important politics is among other priorities. Those who care more about politics can spend more on politics, and there is a certain fairness in that. The problem, of course, is that although this state of facts is conceivable, it doesn’t exist, it has never existed, and it won’t exist at any time that we can foresee.
But it is entirely beyond me – maybe a commenter can help me out here – how lifting spending limits ensures that “ideas speak rather than money.” There is no conceivable state of facts such that spending more money on politics changes politics from being about money to being about ideas.