Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Too Much Campaign Spending???

The editorial page of The Tennessean today calls for the regulation -- dare one say suppression -- of political speech by politicians in order to address its concern that there is now an "excess" of campaign spending. The immediate cause of the paper's jeremiad is the realization that the two major party nominees for President next year may spend a combined $1 billion, an amount which the newspaper confidently declares to be excessive. The paper also claims to know the proper value of a political advertisement, making the claim that such ads are "overpriced." One suspects they are not speaking of newspaper ads.

Of course $1 billion dollars is more than pocket change -- or is it? If accurate, that would mean that Americans will spend about $3.50 per person next year electing the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. That is about the price of a 12 pack of soft drinks -- on sale.

Unfortunately, all of the arguments given by the editorial writer in favor of restricting political speech are poor ones.

First, the argument is made that this amount could feed some entire impoverished nations or start funding universal health care. The former of those suggestions is more realistic than the latter, but this sort of argument could be made regarding all kinds of spending. If The Tennessean wishes to advocate that every subscriber of a daily newspaper cancel their subscription for a week in order to send the money to feed a small third world country, The Oracle will hop on board that movement. Alternatively, this writer would prefer encouraging citizens to save money for world hunger by rationing soft drinks (see above) rather than political speech.

Second, the editorial writer seems dismissive of the notion that this is a free speech issue, saying that opponents of the regulation of campaign spending amounts merely "latch onto the First Amendment." However, those who think this is only about money and not at all about speech should ponder the following: if a government proposal were made to regulate the amount of money that The Tennessean could spend on its operations, without making any mandates related to content, the argument would quickly be made that such restrictions would amount to suppression of a free press. They would be correct. The same is also true of restrictions on political campaign spending. It is the suppression of political speech.

Third, the paper argues that "those with deep pockets...squelch the voices of smaller political parties and individuals .... [that] have a right to be heard." However, "squelch" is the wrong verb here. No one with deeper pockets is silencing or suppressing others: drowning out perhaps, but not squelching. In this instance, the distinction is important, as it is actually The Tennessean that is arguing in favor of squelching speech. Everyone else is engaged in a battle over what voices will be heard. Speaking of hearing, The Tennessean is wrong in saying that people have a "right" to be heard. If that were the case, The Oracle should demand the right to take temporary ownership of The Tennessean's printing press in order to exercise his right to be read. The freedom is that of speech, which again is what The Tennessean wishes to suppress. It is not the right to be heard. Finally, what the paper is suggesting here is becoming less true by virtue of technology. Anyone with an internet connection and a little creativity, more than at any point in history, has the possibility of being heard.

Finally, the editorial argues that candidates have to spend too much time raising money rather than devising solutions to complicated problems -- as though that would become the automatic filler of newly found free time. The paper doesn't bother noting that the imposition of strict campaign contribution limits is one of the reasons that candidates have to spend so much time raising money. If the goal is to reduce the amount of time needed to raise money, then eliminate restrictions on contribution amounts and require full and immediate disclosure.

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