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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Wilson on Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission

Friday, January 22, 2010

Wilson on Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission

Yesterday, the Supreme Court announced its 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission.  The ruling reestablishes the rights of people to voice political speech through corporations and labor unions.  As might be expected with a politically divided Supreme Court and nation, the decision has resulted in both celebration ("A Free Speech Landmark" Wall Street Journal, Jan. 22, 2010) and weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.  David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times succinctly summarizes the fears of many ("Lobbyists Get Potent Weapon in Campaign Finance Ruling," Jan. 22, 2010).
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has handed lobbyists a new weapon. A lobbyist can now tell any elected official: if you vote wrong, my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election.

“We have got a million we can spend advertising for you or against you — whichever one you want,’ ” a lobbyist can tell lawmakers, said Lawrence M. Noble, a lawyer at Skadden Arps in Washington and former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission.
The fear that money buys votes, distorting elections, is overblown for a number of reasons.  First, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner explain in "Freakonomics," Levitt's research on the impact of campaign contributions and political victory.  Comparing results in which the same candidates ran against each other in consecutive elections, Levitt found that spending had little impact.  A winning candidate can cut spending in half and only lose about 1% of the vote; good candidates attract money and not money buys elections.

More importantly, corporations and labor unions are organized interests that represent groups of individuals and these individuals may have legitimate political interests.  They are self-interested but not monolithic.  Steel makers may lobby for higher steel prices but they will be opposed by automakers and others that use steel as an input.  Unions will support their industry's interests.  Unions will campaign for favorable organizing laws but they will be opposed by unionized and non unionized corporate interests and probably by non unionized labor.  In short, free speech is an American value set forth in the First Amendment and should be defended.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that free speech should be defended. It is more the morals of the politicians that I am concerned with.