This week the U.S. Supreme Court rounded out its session by striking down an Arizona law that provided publicly funded candidates with funds matching those of their privately funded opponents. Heritage expert Hans von Spakovsky explains in more detail here. Campaign finance reform nerds of the conservative persuasion cheered, but the decision actually has far-reaching implications for all Americans’ First Amendment rights, even if they never run for office or even bother to vote.
A Wall Street Journal report notes today:
The majority [of Supreme Court justices] is reaching these results, said Northwestern University law professor John McGinnis, because it views free speech not only as a traditional civil liberty, but also as something akin to a property right.”
Though the cases (and most campaign finance laws) sound complicated, the principle is simple: The free use of your property is inseparable from your freedom of speech. Money is property. Just as you have the freedom to raise your voice in political debate, you have the freedom to use your money to support the candidates of your choice. These contributions are a form of speech—in fact, they can end up funding the candidate’s speech directly in the forms of speaking tours, commercials, and printed materials.
Fundamentally, those for and against matching-funds laws like Arizona’s fall into two camps: those who seek equality of outcome and those who seek to protect equality of opportunity. There is little ambiguity about which side the Founders were on: “the rights of property originate” in “the diversity in the faculties of men…”:
The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.
This excerpt from the Federalist No. 10 might be hard to digest at first glance, but the meaning is straightforward. Simply put: People naturally have different abilities and think differently, so they will naturally form different opinions and acquire different amounts of property. The free use of one’s property is inseparable from freedom of expression. The Founders understood this timeless truth of human nature: that diversity of abilities is closely tied to our diversity of opinion. The only world in which property is uniformly distributed without infringing on individual rights is a non-existent world in which all men think and act precisely alike.
Matching-funds laws such as Arizona’s are a form of property redistribution, because they stipulate that any money a privately funded candidate raises (in excess of a government-mandated limit) will be matched dollar-for-dollar from a tax-funded pool to publicly funded candidates. The supporters of such laws claim they “level the playing field” with little regard for the fact that such a system actually compels taxpayers to support candidates monetarily whom they may oppose personally. In fact, because candidates for office are also taxpayers in their districts, such laws result in the perverse situation in which a candidate is paying (through his tax dollars) for his opponent’s campaign, and the more money he raises for himself, the more money he ensures is promised to his opponent.
In an Olympic race, runners are admitted to the field and judged by their individual abilities. While the opportunity is equal, outcomes are necessarily diverse: No one would claim that a slow runner was treated unfairly if he wasn’t admitted to the race after qualifying rounds demonstrated he was too slow. Nor is it reasonable to claim that the race is only fair if you shorten the legs of the longest-legged runner, and give a head start to the shortest one. These principles hold true in athletic contests, political contests, and life in general. Each individual faces circumstances and his own limitations in his pursuit of a free, happy, and prosperous life. Devotees of liberty should watch campaign finance legislation and litigation carefully—they test the political philosophies that determine our daily lives.