The Plot to Shush Rush You

Monday, July 02, 2007

Bradley A. Smith, who a year and a half ago wrote an excellent article (blogged here) on attempts to throttle talk radio and blogging through campaign finance "reform", follows up with an article that, incredibly, is even more compelling.

It isn't just that campaign finance reform threatens talk radio or blogging, or that it might eventually affect Joe Six-Pack. It's that it already does, as Smith illustrates very well with the first of several harrowing examples:

In February 2006, Norm Feck learned that the city of Parker, Colorado was thinking about annexing his neighborhood, Parker North. Feck attended a meeting on the annexation, realized that it would mean more bureaucracy, and concluded that it wouldn't be in Parker North residents' interest. Together with five other Parker North locals, he wrote letters to the editor, handed out information sheets, formed an Internet discussion group, and printed up anti-annexation yard signs, which soon began sprouting throughout the neighborhood.

That's when annexation supporters took action -- not with their own public campaign, but with a legal complaint against Feck and his friends for violating Colorado's campaign finance laws. The suit also threatened anyone who had contacted Feck's group about the annexation, or put up one of their yard signs, with "investigation, scrutinization, and sanctions for Campaign Finance violations." Apparently the anti-annexation activists hadn't registered with the state, or filled out the required paperwork disclosing their expenditures on time. Steep fines, increasing on a daily basis, were possible. The case remains in litigation.

Should Americans care about what's happening in Parker North? They certainly don't seem to. A LexisNexis search finds just three stories, all in Colorado papers, that mention the dispute. That's it: no commentary by columnists, no national network reports, not even coverage by a single major blogger on this application of campaign finance law to the most basic community political activity. The lack of interest is in a way understandable, since campaign finance reform, whether on the state or federal level, is at once forbiddingly complex and seemingly irrelevant to most citizens' lives. People tend to see reform as affecting only the powerful -- lobbyists, big corporations, "fat cats" -- not ordinary Joes. With some notable exceptions, even conservatives, who overwhelmingly believe that the First Amendment protects one's right to spend money on a candidate, don't pay much attention.
Smith goes on to discuss the atmosphere of palpable anxiety among those only slightly higher up in the political food chain. Says one accountant who volunteered to work as a campaign treasurer, "No job I have ever undertaken caused me more stress than this one. I was frightened and concerned every day that I would do something wrong."

In fact, even ordinary speech is being regulated -- by assigning it a cash value:
... [I]f an executive instructs his secretary to type a fund-raising letter, the FEC values the contribution not at the cost of typing the letter, but at the amount of money that the letter raises. This move dramatically expands the reach of campaign finance laws: not only can the FEC limit funds that can be used for speech, but it can limit speech itself by assigning it a monetary value. And it opens the door to all kinds of mischief: for instance, the FEC could determine that a posting on a popular blog was worth thousands of dollars.
Economic controls do not just breed other economic controls. They breed controls on all other spheres of human activity because all spheres of human activity are interrelated. As I have said before:
One will not achieve freedom for the mind by instituting slavery for the body. One must understand that freedom is indivisible -- like the human beings who need it to survive.
We see here that the chickens of our nation's long standing failure to respect property rights are coming home to roost -- in the form of the words out of our mouths being regarded as property, and thus subject to regulation. In order for us to continue to enjoy government protection of our right to freedom of speech, we must also insist on unbreached protection of property rights.

Smith correctly names the objective of campaign finance "reform":
Such an intrusive regulatory regime is but a logical step toward the holy grail of campaign finance reform: a fully regulated, taxpayer-funded system of political speech. Richard Hasen, an oft-quoted expert on campaign finance whom the media regularly portray as a moderate voice for reform, has proposed limiting citizens' financial participation in politics to a government-provided voucher, and prohibiting any other private funding of political speech. Edward Foley, a former Ohio state solicitor and director of Ohio State University’s influential election-law program, has made a similar proposal. Both experts would extend their regulations even to newspaper editorial pages. Hasen explains that he's trying to solve the "Rupert Murdoch problem" -- just in case you had any doubt about whom he's got in his sights.
This puts it mildly. If people are already being admonished for placing political decals on their own unsold ad space, then this goal will clearly require full socialism or at least speech only by government permission.

If the article has a major flaw, it is that it goes too easy on conservatives. That John McCain sponsored the odious measure known by his name is noted, but the significance of a conservative sponsor is hidden behind his being dismissed as "unconventional". That President Bush signed it into law is forgiven too easily by assigning his blame to the Supreme Court, which has plenty of blame of its own already.

We are in serious trouble. The left wants to stamp out freedom of speech and the right doesn't seem to understand why freedom of speech is important. The first is serious, but not insurmountable while we can still speak. The second indicates a fundamental failure to understand the role of reasoned debate at best and complicity at worst. Read on for why complicity gets my vote.

If, as Smith says, "[m]any a tax- and regulation-prone politician, stymied by real political debate," wants campaign finance reform, the fact that conservatives are "historically uninterested in mobilizing against 'reform,'" seems quite curious. Wouldn't conservatives stand to win big (as shown by some ballot initiatives Smith himself cites) if they'd stand up for freedom of speech? I, for one, am not prepared to believe that this hasn't dawned on them.

Given that so many who want to inject religion into politics wish to impose restrictions (e.g., decency laws) of their own on freedom of speech generally, I wouldn't put it past many conservatives to be salivating at the prospect of further regulations on freedom of speech.

It does not take much imagination to see such types waiting for the chance to use such laws creatively for their own nefarious purposes. The left opposes freedom of speech merely on pragmatic grounds -- because it would keep them out of power. The right is worse: It opposes freedom of speech on moral grounds -- and they'll sacrifice some short-term goals in order to see it get snuffed out to the point that they can force America to live up to its standards of "decency". And this is the only way this goal can be achieved, given that there is no basis besides faith for Christian morality. Reasoned debate only impedes the acceptance of arbitarary marching orders.

The only way to prevent the enemies of freedom on the left and on the right from destroying our nation's ability to hold an informed, intelligent discussion of the issues of the day is to fight for consistent protection of the rights to freedom of speech and to property, since the latter provides the means for the dissemination of the former.

-- CAV


Jim May said...

Several of the points you make echo some that I've made in the past, on various blog comments (including some here) and my own blog posts.

Economic controls do not just breed other economic controls. They breed controls on all other spheres of human activity because all spheres of human activity are interrelated.

The division between "economic" and "political" freedom was instituted by the Left as part of an overall political/cultural package deal swap in the nineteenth century in Europe -- the first big intellectual wedge into the structure of the Enlightenment.

The first was the substitution of "national self-determination" for individual rights. Freedom came to be defined as self-rule of nations, groups or races, not individuals.

The second, a corollary of the first, was the substitution of "democracy" for what was only known as "the society of natural rights", or what the Marxists eventually named "capitalism".

The third, a necessary step in the context of the Enlightenment, is the artificial distinction between "economic" and "political" freedom.

Of all the "natural rights", property rights were the least understood and were defended the most weakly, if at all. That is why the Left began its political attack here, with this particular weapon -- and why socialism was its first political expression. The goal was to section off and destroy one aspect of freedom, knowing that this breach would leave *all* freedom wide open, undefended.

This was a complete success, to the delight of both Left and conservatism.

Wouldn't conservatives stand to win big (as shown by some ballot initiatives Smith himself cites) if they'd stand up for freedom of speech? I, for one, am not prepared to believe that this hasn't dawned on them.

Oh, it has, Gus, it has. The answer as to what is happening is something both you and I have touched on many times from different angles in the past: left-right political "synergy".

Both movements are anti-Enlightenment at core; the Left for reasons traceable to Kant, the right due to its allegiance with the pre-Kant religious order. As a result, their actions often have a hand-in-glove quality; an example is how the Christian Right is taking advantage of the Left's old playbook in pursuing their political goals.

A few years ago, someone did a big survey of college-age people, asking them whether the First Amendment "went too far" and was too permissive. IIRC that survey returned results of about 2:1 saying "Yes". A few Hollywood types did the obligatory hand-wringing over it, then it disappeared.

I'd not be a bit surprised if the leaders of both sides noted this.

Gus Van Horn said...

You seem better informed of the intellectual history behinds this than I am, so thank you for leaving this comment. Your sketch of it fits my observations very well.

And if the survey you cite is any indication, we are really in heap big trouble.

Free Speech Becky said...

You’ve written about our free speech litigation against the CO Secretary of State’s office when two of our neighbors tried to shut us up saying we were in violation of campaign finance laws. I thought you might be interested in the outcome of our case.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you for the info, Becky!