Topic: Political Philosophy

Some Good News from the Court for a Change

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning struck down a set of restrictions on campaign finance enacted by Vermont. Six members of the court believed Vermont’s spending limits and extremely low contribution limits violated the First Amendment.

The six justices agreed that the Vermont law was invalid. But they disagreed about quite a bit, too. Justices Breyer, Roberts and Alito focused on the shortcomings of the Vermont law. Breyer and Roberts also rejected Vermont’s demand that Buckley v. Valeo be overturned. Justices Thomas and Scalia concurred in the opinion but rightly called for overturning Buckley in order to offer better protections for political speech. Justice Kennedy rightly expressed dismay with the Court’s recent campaign finance jurisprudence. In the larger picture, he seems closer to Thomas and Scalia than the other three in the majority.

This ruling was expected, but nonetheless good news. The majority opinion shows that we now have a majority of the court who recognize some limits on the power of the state over political speech. After McConnell v. FEC, it was far from clear than the judiciary would draw any lines limiting state restrictions on speech.

Still, this is hardly a robust affirmation of the First Amendment, and it is somewhat discouraging that the new justices, Roberts and Alito, were unwilling to overturn past errors by earlier majorities on the Court.

Bush and Kelo

Per David’s Kelo anniversary posts below, skeptics are probably right to question the sincerity of the White House’s halfhearted embrace of property rights last week. Back in 2004, when Kelo was pending before the Supreme Court, the Bush administration not only refused to file an amicus brief on behalf of the property owners, but was actually on the verge of filing a brief on behalf of the land-seizing local governments.

The Institute for Justice’s Clint Bolick wrote at the time:

One would expect the Bush administration, with its professed support for strict constitutional construction and for property rights, to join the dozens of conservative and libertarian groups arrayed in this effort, or at worst to sit on the sidelines. But for reasons unfathomable to President Bush’s core constituency, the administration is seriously considering filing a brief opposing property rights.

[…]

So what is it that is impelling the administration to betray its principles?

Is it succumbing to pressure from federal bureaucrats born of solidarity with state and local power? Is it seeking to shelter big business interests that are beneficiaries of eminent domain abuse?

We can’t know because no one in the administration is saying. Even worse is the brazen disdain with which the administration has dismissed pleas from some of its staunchest allies to stay out of the case.

On Oct. 29, a letter signed by 44 conservative and libertarian luminaries — ranging from Grover Norquist to Paul Weyrich and David Keene, and encompassing such groups as the Free Congress Foundation, Family Research Council and National Taxpayers Union — sent the president a letter imploring him to stay on the sidelines. It would be nice to have the administration on the playing field on the side of its friends; but at this point, agnosticism is preferable to adopting the wrong religion.

When property-rights advocates presented a copy of the letter to Timothy Goeglein, the administration’s emissary to the conservative movement, he dismissively dropped it to the ground.

[…]

So when the arguments are submitted in the New London case, it will be jarring if we see the administration standing with the foes of property rights. Perhaps by then the administration will explain its betrayal — or maybe not, for its actions appear truly inexplicable.

Sadly, we now know that advocating for limitless government power isn’t “bizarre” for this administration, it’s routine.

Free Speech Safe For Now

Congressional Quarterly reports that the attack on 527 groups has ground to a halt. As you recall, 527s are organizations created by the tax code. They are used to raise and spend money on elections campaigns. 527s have to disclose their contributions, but they are not bound by other aspects of federal campaign finance law, most notably, contribution limits. 527s helped John Kerry a lot in 2004. House Republicans, though having opposed restrictions on campaign finance for years, have been trying to eliminate 527s since the 2004 campaign. Earlier this year, it looked like they might do so.

Now things look better for those of us concerned with free speech. The House remains eager to get rid of 527s (as part of a “lobbying reform” bill), but the Senate will not go along. Why not? Senate Democrats know what’s up, and with the exception of Russ Feingold, might vote against a lobbying bill that eliminates 527s. So that’s 44 votes against the bill. Seven Senate Republicans also told their leader, Sen. Frist:

As Republicans, we strongly believe in freedom, including freedom of expression and association. We campaigned for office on the principles of a limited and constitutional government. As elected officials we took an oath of office to “support this Constitution.” The First Amendment’s dictates are a model of clarity: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” Yet the House of Representatives approved a bill (H.R. 513) that proposes new restrictions on speech about politicians and policies to be enforced under the threat of criminal penalties.

The seven Republicans then threatened to support a Democratic filibuster against the lobbying bill. Who knows? Those 7 plus the Democrats might even make up a majority in the Senate?

So partisanship and principle have worked together well to protect freedom of speech. For now.

(The seven Republican senators are: George Allen, Sam Brownback, Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint, Michael Enzi, John Sununu and David Vitter). [pdf]

Spending Limits Are Not the Answer

David Primo and Jeff Milyo have just published an op-ed in Roll Call. Advocates have long argued that restrictions on campaign spending, which can be direct spending or contributions, enhance electoral competition. In Vermont they convinced the state legislature to pass spending limits, the constitutionality of which are now before the U.S. Supreme Court. Primo and Milyo correctly note “the most current and best scientific evidence flies in the face of the promises” made by these advocates. Indeed, “the court jurisprudence upholding campaign finance laws is built on a shaky empirical foundation.” They continue: “In fact, we are aware of no scholarly studies that yield consistent evidence of large and statistically significant effects of campaign finance regulations on electoral competitiveness.”

I go into the shaky philosophical and empirical foundations of campaign finance law in my upcoming book, The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform.

Since When Does the Right Have Any Health Care Prescriptions?

Ezra Klein responds to my post on the Citizens’ Health Care Working Group, where I lament that its tax-and-spend approach to health care shows that it was hijacked by the left—despite having a business-community chairman and Bush’s HHS Secretary on the panel. Klein provides an alternative interpretation: “the right’s prescriptions on health care didn’t even convince the panel’s Republican ringers.”

I’m new to the blogosphere, so I’m not clear what the rules are regarding subtlety. My point was that the right doesn’t have any prescriptions or even premises when it comes to health care—at least, not of their own. To compensate, they adopt the left’s premises (“we need to expand health coverage”) and prescriptions (“we need a Medicare Rx benefit”). For examples, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Even when the right comes across a good idea (e.g., health savings accounts), they often gravitate toward it not because they understand why it’s a good idea, but because they think it serves leftist premises (“HSAs will … reduce the number of uninsured!”). The exception that proves the rule would have to be the GOP’s Rep. John Shadegg and Sen. Jim DeMint, who have a smashing health care proposal and who know why it’s a good proposal.

In general, Republicans and conservatives do not understand health policy, and do not have a health policy agenda that distinguishes them from the Left. Then, lo and behold, we get the GOP’s top health care guy sitting on a panel that (tentatively) recommends universal coverage financed by tax increases.

Go figure.

‘Twas a Famous Victory

Apropos of DeLay’s departure and the K Street Project (“Please, Hammer, don’t hurt me!”), I’m reminded of a dinner for another think tank I attended a couple of years ago.  DeLay was the featured speaker, and when he approached the podium, he got a roaring standing O. Except from my table, which was made up of Cato folks.  DeLay gestured toward us and growled into the mike, “Those must be the libertarians!”

Not too long thereafter, the Hammer declared an “ongoing victory” in the war on spending, noting that “After 11 years of Republican majority, we’ve pared it down pretty good.”  Sigh. Good riddance.

Politics Is Not Religion

Will Wilkinson offers some telling criticisms of Charles Morris’ recent New York Times op-ed.

Morris writes that the economy has a “spiritual dimension” that is lacking in contemporary America. He implies that an active and expansive government should supply a “conviction of fairness, a feeling of not being totally on one’s own, a sense of reasonable stability and predictability.”

The state, then, should be in the business of providing spiritual goods.

Morris’ essay reminded me of what one of the founders of neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol, once wrote: “A nation whose politics turn on the cost of false teeth is a nation whose politics are squalid.”

So politics is apparently about more than mere material matters; it has a higher dimension. In our time, that higher dimension has become the politics of national greatness that in turn became a crusade to bring democracy to others.

Both Kristol and Morris are confusing politics for religion. They expect more from politics than it can or should give. Or at least, they expect more than a politics consistent with liberty can give.