In May of this year, a group of American citizens united to form a small organization dedicated to spreading the shared opinion of its members. To that end, they have run television advertisements and held press conferences criticizing the military service record of presidential candidate John Kerry. The group calls itself, “The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” and in a free society there wouldn’t be much left to say about this prosaic organization.
The fact that much is being said about it should give you a clue about the state of freedom in modern society.
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is known as a “527 organization,” a reference to an obscure portion of the tax code that grants the group immunity from one contemporary weapon in the federal government’s growing arsenal of regulation: the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. This organization’s freedom to express an opinion about a political candidate, we are told, is made possible by virtue of a mistake; an oversight; a “loophole” that shifty-eyed, unscrupulous lawyers have cleverly exploited as a means to undermine the all-American cause of campaign finance reform. Even President Bush recently denounced the group’s advertisements as “bad for the system.”
For what sort of system the organized expression of opinion is “bad,” no one has bothered to ask.
The need for the government to regulate how political (and neo-political) organizations raise and spend money is seldom even questioned. The federal government must “help” citizens select a candidate, so the argument goes, by limiting the amount of money candidates are allowed to spend. After all, one campaign might have more money than the other, and the philistine masses will be too easily duped by the dazzling special effects afforded by the richer candidate. Never mind why one campaign might have more money. Never mind that people might be more willing to give money to one candidate than to the other; that one candidate might have built a successful business empire and the other is a lout; that one might be particularly adept at convincing people of his cause, while the other is unable to convince even himself. To the reformers, why two campaigns are unequally financed does not matter; all that matters is the apparent “fairness” of the race, which to them means handicapping scores for the chintzy illusion of an even match. And when it comes to the game of limiting campaign spending for future government leaders, the current leaders are more than willing to play referee.
Likewise, there is little dispute over the legitimacy of regulating how campaign money is raised. Campaign finance reform advocates generally regard it as axiomatic that $10 campaign contributions from barely subsistent grandmothers and migrant farm workers are picture-perfect representations of grassroots democracy at its finest, but that $10 million contributions from successful business tycoons or large associations are, by their very nature, damning evidence of vile, insidious corruption. All of this, the crisis-mongers bleat, is too difficult for voters to sort out. As a result, campaign finance reform law is crafted to spare voters the burden of thought. By suspending the rights of individuals to donate however much they desire to whomever they desire, the government will judge candidates for us. How considerate. [Observe also how campaign finance reform law has worsened the problem that it was ostensibly constructed to fix: instead of receiving obviously traceable donations from large special interest groups, candidates now receive tangential support through off-beat, “issue-based” sources, and the American voter is left with the intimidating task of wading through a convoluted network of financial capillaries to determine who is giving what to whom.]
Underneath all of the campaign finance reform rhetoric lies the frightening notion of the superiority of the disorganized. When a handful of war veterans stand on stage behind a candidate, that is laudable; when several dozen organize to sponsor advertisements on television, that, somehow, is not. The meaning implicit in this attitude is that the “voice” of the American people is sacrosanct only so long as it is a discordant chaos of disintegrated opinions, unorganized and impotent to effect chance. Once people unite around a common cause and commit substantial portions of money to it, their message becomes evil. Thankfully, this premise hasn’t yet been carried to logical conclusion, but its seeds have been planted in the form of campaign finance reform law, and supporters continue to water regularly.
Reformers justify intrusive government regulation with the mantra that money can cloud judgment. But thanks to them, it already has: fixation over “reform” of how candidates collect and spend money has all but obscured from view the founding principles of free speech and free expression. In this context, money is merely a means to an end; a tool for exercising the rights recognized by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
To the invertebrates who blindly accept the legitimacy of campaign finance “reform,” this is relegated to the status of a “loophole” around some arbitrary piece of federal legislation. And to those of you willing to oppose them, this is where you can find your moral backbone.