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The Problem of Plutocracy

Tuesday, July 01, 2008
The modern campaign finance regime is dead. Founded in the 1970's in response to the abuses of the Nixon administration, the laws meant to regulate spending in election campaigns has slowly unraveled over the last decade. It would be easy to blame Barack Obama's opting out of the presidential public financing system, or the recent Supreme Court decision striking down the millionaire's amendment, but the reality is that the attempt to prevent elections from being dominated by wealth was murdered in its crib, when the Supreme Court's Buckley vs. Valeo decision equated spending money on campaigns as a form of political speech. To use Rawlsian terms, this ridiculous decision neglected the problem of the equal worth and fair value of political equality - namely, that if spending money is a form of protected political speech, then those with greater wealth will have more "speech", and therefore more control over the public forum, than everyone else. There is a word for a political system in which political power is weighted based on one's personal financial assets, and it is not called a democracy.

I won't spend time discussing the narrative of how the campaign finance system was created, or the various ways it has been amended, or why it has failed. I want to underline fact that the three-decades battle to limit the influence of money in politics is over. From now on only candidates who can raise tens of millions of dollars will be eligible for high public office. Barack Obama's success in mobilizing small contributions is more likely anomalous, because one must have substantial fame before such a strategy is workable.

I also want to make very clear the consequences of an unregulated political financial market. If political advertising (whether true or not) determines elections, if media outlets are focused on trivia at best and are slanted towards particular ideological perspectives at worst, if only candidates who are either a) wealthy or b) owned by the wealthy have a realistic chance at public office, how representative will the system be? What then do you think will be the direction of public policy? We will continue to be a republic by, for, and of the people - but which people? I fear that we are trending ever-further into some modern version of the Roman Principate, where the polity exhibits all the outward forms of the old republic, while the substance is something very different.

Cheery thoughts looking to July 4th.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:54 AM
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