So I was caught off-guard when MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann called the Citizens United decision "a Supreme Court–sanctioned murder of what little democracy is left in this democracy." When others followed with similar howls of wounded outrage, I became aware of a gap in my understanding of the progressive Left. I suddenly realized that free speech for big business is to the Left what due process for alleged terrorists is to the Right: an unbearable burden that threatens freedom itself.The guy can turn a phrase.
For most progressives, democracy is more than a mere instrument for throwing the bums out. Democracy is instead the embodiment of the liberal ideal of equal freedom. This sacred ideal is threatened, progressives argue, by concentrations of wealth that enable inequalities in political voice. If victory in the public sphere is determined by the size of one’s megaphone, then wealthy interests with large megaphones will capture the system and rig it to their permanent advantage. Consequently, megaphones must be regulated to ensure an equitable democratic process.
But the granddaddy of all progressive errors – the one that breeds all others -- is the assumption that greater government power can rectify the problem of unequal citizen power. Government can only act as a “countervailing force” in this regard if it is not acting already to serve corporate and special interests. But it is. That is why new government powers merely augment, rather than offset, the already disproportionate power of entrenched interests.
The biggest, baddest corporations, unions, and special interests already use government to exert power on their behalf. With the heft of the state behind them, they can swing sweetheart deals (witness earmarks) and they can foil upstart competitors (through regulation) who might otherwise eat their lunch. A government unhindered by limits retains the discretion to pick winners. A government that can make or break great fortunes invites a bruising and wasteful competition for its favor. It cannot be surprising, then, that those with the most -- thus most to lose -- assiduously seek favor from the state. It should not be surprising that those with powerful Washington connections are handsomely compensated by big special interests. And it should not be surprising when the well-connected exploit their relationships with people in power in the same way they maximize any other valuable asset.
Also worth checking out: a new Kiwi blog on campaign finance. Its first posts basically cover the articles I use in my public choice class, so they're heading in the right direction!