Epstein on Campaign Contributions

quotes campaign contributions classical liberalism

12 Apr 2014

Richard Epstein on campaign contributions:

Quite simply, no intelligible theory of political economy lumps the protection of contractual freedom into the category of statist and oppressive restrictions on individual liberty. Indeed, it is just at this point that the case in favor of the campaign contribution caps collapses. In a society that has strong protections for property rights, supposed oligarchs have no reason to enter big-time into political activity because their liberties and property would already be amply protected against confiscation by collective action. The simple truth here is that public deliberation is always improved when these side constraints against government action are respected for candidates all across the political spectrum. The purpose, for example, of the “just compensation” requirements in the Takings Clause is to make sure that political majorities take into account the losses of those individuals whose rights they restrict by onerous rent control, zoning, and landmark preservation laws. By forcing the costs of these programs onto the public budget, government officials and citizens must determine whether the public benefits acquired through regulation are worth the additional taxes that must be raised to keep these constraints in place. The answer is that they often are not.

The point matters in these political cases because it is highly doubtful that so-called oligarchs would make political investments if they knew that they were immune from the risk of confiscation through thinly disguised schemes of regulation and taxation, especially since these same rules would prevent them from seeking subsidies of their own. But right now, with these protections shattered, the dynamic changes on both sides of the great political divide.

As matters now stand, most of the legislation before Congress and the states represents efforts on the part of the progressive movement to retain its chokehold on employment relations and land use, to funnel huge sums of money in favor of subsidies to inefficient forms of wind and solar energy, and to increase the burdens of taxation of the rich in the name of greater income equality. And there is no doubt that these groups can and will take advantage of the relaxation of the political restraints that are placed on their activity.

In this environment, the supposed oligarchs are on the defensive. In the main, unlike unions, they are not seeking massive subsidies. They are trying to resist actions that restrict their own basic property and contract rights. Indeed, there is no question who is winning the debate today, as government action intrudes itself ever more into the life of the public. If I were a progressive, I would surely support all the financial limitations in the BCRA on the ground that they are likely in practice to bite harder on individuals who cannot rely on an army of unpaid foot soldiers to advance their political objectives and are thus forced to enter the political lists to protect rights that should be theirs as a matter of basic constitutional principle.

In other words, large campaign contributions are merely a symptom of the deeper problem of a degenerate political system. Epstein suggests that instead of limiting large campaign contributions, we should focus on reforming the political system so that such campaign contributions are not impactful.

Read more here.