February 19, 2010

The Progressive Fallacy on Free Speech

As a follow up to the Timothy Sandefur piece linked below comes an excellent column from Will Wilkinson on the motivation of the left and why they have Citizen United all wrong. An excerpt:
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.

Progressives are right to worry about corporatist government. But they locate the problem in the wrong place, which is why their proposed solutions repeatedly miss the target. It would be a great tragedy for democracy if a commonsense reading of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech truly undermined democratic freedom. Thankfully, it does not. Ultimately, the Citizen’s United case will change very little about how our political system works. Election-season speech was never the chief means by which special interests did their dirty work. But in some modest measure, the decision actually sets the right example. By limiting government power, it protects our freedom.

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