Political Spending Doesn't Lead to Corruption

Politicians have proven they can be corrupted with or without massive campaign war chests.


It's presidential season, so again pundits are indignant that money is spent on politics. Spent by corporations! And rich people! Because the Supreme Court allowed that, "2012 will be a miserable year," says The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne

2012 may be miserable—but if it is, it won't be because corporations spend on politics. And anyway, they have a right to spend.

In politics, money is speech.

The very first amendment that the Founders chose to add to the Constitution couldn't be more clear: "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech…."

Yet most people support laws against political speech—when they don't like the speakers.

Asking government to regulate political speech is a poisonous idea. Politicians naturally think that people who challenge their power should be restrained. Sen. John McCain led the majority who championed "campaign finance reform" that, among other things, forbade anonymous donors to run ads in the crucial weeks just before elections (when most voters finally pay attention).

My ABC colleagues loved McCain-Feingold. Some conservatives think journalists like the law because it exempts media corporations. But I think it goes back to our gut instinct that corporations are bad and rich people spending money to influence politics is very bad.

But political (and religious) speech is exactly what the Founders were eager to protect when they wrote the First Amendment. It has been nice to watch the Supreme Court overrule McCain-Feingold piece by piece.

In 2008, a court ruled that TV ads for a nonprofit corporation's critical documentary about then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton violated McCain-Feingold. When the Supremes overturned that ruling, saying that corporations and unions may fund political ads, the mainstream media were so upset, they sounded like there had been a coup.

The New York Times said the decision "strikes at the heart of democracy." The Washington Post quoted someone saying it "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions."


The swing justice, Anthony Kennedy, was right to say: "When Government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful."

He also said, "Political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it."

The American Civil Liberties Union agreed, but most progressives condemned the Supremes for "judicial activism." I thought progressives favored free speech. I was wrong.

People's stance on free speech often depends on whose ox is gored. In condemning the decision, the offended progressives engaged in amazing mental contortions. It "was wrong because nothing in the First Amendment dictates that corporations must be treated identically to people," said the editorial in The Washington Post. Don't progressives realize that corporations (and unions, which also had their speech rights protected) are associations of individuals—individuals who have rights? Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was mocked when he said, "Corporations are people." But Romney was right.

One need not be a fan of corporations to see that restricting anyone's speech is dangerous. One government lawyer said that even corporate-funded books favoring candidates could be illegal. That should scare progressives—the Federal Election Commission put an anti-Bush book written by George Soros under scrutiny. Laws limiting speech have been used more often against radicals than against the corporate establishment.

But the progressives' campaign goes on. The Supreme Court right now is revisiting this issue because Montana's Supreme Court ruled that Montana can ban corporate spending on state politics. Sens. McCain and Sheldon Whitehouse filed a friend-of-the-court brief claiming that allowing corporate speech would bring a "strong potential for corruption and perception thereof."

Right, as though politicians don't routinely constitute a "potential for corruption" all by themselves.

It is shameful that leftists let their hatred of corporations lead them to throw free speech under the bus. There is a smarter way to get corporate money out of politics: Shrink the state. If government has fewer favors to sell, citizens will spend less money trying to win them.

John Stossel (read his Reason archive) is the host of Stossel, which airs Thursdays on the FOX Business Network at 9 pm ET and is rebroadcast on Saturdays and Sundays at 9pm & midnight ET. Go here for more info.

NEXT: Pelosi Promises to Replace ObamaCare's Mandate if Struck Down, Insists "You have to eat your vegetables."

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  1. The American Civil Liberties Union agreed, but most progressives condemned the Supremes for “judicial activism.” I thought progressives favored free speech. I was wrong.

    And every former ACLU official disagreed. I’m guessing that the hold on the anti-cfr position the ACLU holds is very tenuous, like… one board-of-directors vote away.

  2. “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech….”

    But money isn’t speech; Its legal tender. It is used as part of the transaction of goods and services. It can buy someone to speak for you, but it is not speech itself. Speech is the expression of ideas through words; be it written spoken, or even sung. Money is text on a piece of paper that people assign value through faith in they govt.

    If you want to take the step that exchanging money is a form of speech, then consider the following:

    Can bribery be a crime? I give a sum of money to a prosecutor, and that prosecutor just happens to drop criminal charges against me, isn’t that just me expressing myself? Is that any different than me giving a congressman money and he just happens to vote how I want?

    Is prostitution a crime? If I pay someone to have sex, is that any different than talking my way into it?

    If money is speech, is any fungible good free speech? Gold is widely considered money. Can that be extended to all physical goods? Silver? Corn? Small rocks? Cocaine?

    If giving someone money is considered free speech, Is taking someone’s money abridging speech? After all, the less money you have, the less speaking you can do.

    Are taxes abridging my free speech by the govt taking my money?

    1. But money isn’t speech; Its legal tender.

      Ah, so you’re one of those who believes that the first amendment doesn’t protect any expenditure of money to spread your message. That it would be perfectly Constitutional for the government to, say, prohibit the expenditure of funds to criticize the government without a license.


      1. So you are saying that money IS free speech, and so bribery and prostitution should be legal?

        Or maybe money is something different altogether, and money is MONEY. A medium of exchange used for many things. Including, but not limited to, speech.


        1. MAV|6.21.12 @ 3:18PM|#
          “So you are saying that money IS free speech, and so bribery and prostitution should be legal?”

          Do you have a permit for that strawman?

      2. What prevents the government from creating laws banning the printing press is the 1st amendment. Preventing the govt from banning the money to buy the printing press is the 9th and 10th amendment.

        e.g, the really important forgotten ones that congress finds really inconvenient and likes to ignore.

    2. Is a corporation made up of people, or something else?

      Can a person be said to have freedom of the press, if the government limits the size of the press he can buy and how much he can spend on paper and ink, and hence restricts the number of leaflets he can distribute?

      1. If I use that printing press to print counterfeit bills, isn’t that also freedom of speech?

        After all, money is speech, I’m using a printing press to print money.

        1. Frankly, yes. Competing currencies should be perfectly legal. Besides, go ahead and print your own money. It’s backed by the same stuff our current money is.

        2. A printing press also costs money. So since it’s an economic transaction, you think the government should control who has access to them?

          1. Weaponized anthrax also costs money. So since it’s an economic transaction, you think the government should control who has access to it?

            Of course you do! Because weaponized anthrax is something the government SHOULD regulate. Sales of printing presses, however, are something the government cannot legally regulate! But just because something can be bought doesn’t immediately mean it equates to freedom of speech.

            1. “But just because something can be bought doesn’t immediately mean it equates to freedom of speech.”

              I’m beginning to think you actually believe this crap.
              Money buys access to an audience. Congress may not limit that access; it is a limit on speech.

    3. How about all the money MSNBC and FOX news spends to provide their point of view?Ben Franklin used his newspapers to spread the patriot message and others did the same.Speech is more than standing in the square shouting.Its being able to spread your views through the best medium possible.In those days it was print and now we have the net,TV and radio.

    4. “But money isn’t speech; Its legal tender.”

      Following this logic, political cartoons are not speech; they are graphite and/or ink on paper. Also, blogs are not speech, they are digital signals stored on the internet. What else isn’t speech?

      1. That makes no sense whatsoever. Saying “Money isn’t speech, it is legal tender.” is nothing at all like saying “political cartoons are not speech, they are graphite on paper”.

        The definition of money is as follows: any article or substance used as a medium of exchange, measure of wealth, or means of payment, as checks on demand deposit or cowrie.

        There is nothing in there anywhere implied or explicit stating that money has anything to do with speech.

        1. Money is only an instrumental medium to an end. You don’t want money; you want what it can buy. You don’t want $5; you want the number 4 with a Coke. It is a tool for achiving and end. If someone wants to use this tool to help spread a message they believe in perhaps by giving it to a candidate that will use it to advocate for you, then you do not get to tell them they can’t. If that same person wanted to trade any other piece(s) of their property to someone for publicity or anything else they wanted then it amounts to the same thing. Will you block the amount of cake I can donate to a bake sale? The cake is not speech, it is a medium used for me to make a statement.

          1. ^^^ this.

            If you give money to a hitman to kill your wife it is murder, not speech. What makes money into “speech” is your intentional use of it to have political opinions advertised. In which case it cannot be restricted under the constitution. Simple as that, without all the need for semantics.

    5. MRK, according to the FEC, speech is money. Now contort away trying to defend that position.

    6. “Speech is the expression of ideas through words; be it written spoken, or even sung.”

      You are suggesting that you have no right to spend money to express your opinions. That logically means that you have no constitutionally protected right to post you thoughts on the internet. Money was spent to purchase the computer you use, money was spent to buy the internet access you use. You are saying the government has the authority to censor your thoughts because money was used to put them where everyone can see.

      Do you see where you are going wrong?

  3. If money is speech, and you cannot make laws that abridge speech, that means you cannot make laws that abride monetary transactions.

    Ponzi schemes are legal! Sweet!

    1. Pretty much. Heard of Social Security Insurance?

    2. Ponzi schemes are fraud,a type of theft.I assume you know that.Your arguments are not valid.

      1. The thing that is not valid is the proposition that spending money in any form is free speech.

        1. MAV|6.21.12 @ 3:49PM|#
          “The thing that is not valid is the proposition that spending money in any form is free speech.”


          1. Try running for office without money, MAV.

            1. I’m talking about spending money being equal to free speech. IT IS NOT. You can spend money on legal things (candy bar) and illegal things (anthrax). Using money to obtain anthrax is illegal. If spending money is free speech, then obtaining anthrax would be legal under the first amendment. However, it isn’t. And it shouldn’t be. Because the entire proposition that money = free speech is absurd.

              Surely you can’t be so blind as to not allow yourself to even consider the possibility that maybe money DOES NOT equal free speech?

              1. So I can’t buy anthrax with money. Cool. Can I trade quality, hand made quilts for some? If I find someone who has some anthrax who just so happens to want some quality, hand made quilts and we make the trade, would that be okay? Or since there is a person out there who will take a quality, hand made quilt in trade for some anthrax, does that mean that we should restrict the flow of quality, hand made quilts since they are not speech?

              2. “Because the entire proposition that money = free speech is absurd.”

                You are spending time arguing that the progressive’s shallow, bumper sticker slogan is technically correct because money is not always used for the purpose of advancing speech?

                That is…appallingly lame.

              3. MAV|6.21.12 @ 4:31PM|#
                “I’m talking about spending money being equal to free speech. IT IS NOT…”

                Oh, how………….
                Did you have a point that might interest adults?

        2. If I wanted to give Fred the candidate $10,000, you would say that is too much money and since money isn’t speech, I can’t give it too him. But Fred doesn’t want $10,000. He wants as many yard signs as $10,000 can buy so he can get elected. I want him to get elected so he can repeal a buch of small business restrictions for people like me. What if I just gave him $10,000 worth of yard signs that I made? Would you say that is too much property and since property isn’t speech, I can’t give it to him? The point is that money/yard signs/cake is my stuff and I can give it whoever I want for whatever purpose I want. I can burn it in the yard or use it to advocate for a cause (a la SPEECH). You have no justification to stop me.

          1. And the people claiming that money isn’t speech will stick their fingers in their ears and chant “neener neener neener, we can’t hear you!”

            Support for your candidate or principles isn’t speech unless it is actually you just talking. Support for their candidate or principles is always speech, no matter what form it takes, and therefore protected.

            That is how these people think the game should work. That is how they think. THEY are always, Always, ALWAYS the exception.

            And the ultimate example of this is that they tend to be panting fanboys for the kind of charismatic revolutionary/psycho that (speaking historically) tends to liqidate people like them at the earliest opportunity.

        3. “The thing that is not valid is the proposition that spending money in any form is free speech.”

          No one except you is saying “in any form” is free speech. Preventing money from being spent in the course of distributing speech is an assault on free speech.

          1. But Mickey, if they admit THAT they would have to give up on their efforts to stifle all views other than The Right Ones (theirs).

            This is why I find it increasingly hard to be civil to Progressives.

            1. MAV hasn’t admitted to being such, but it’s an odds-on bet MAV thinks MAV should decide who gets to spend money on what POV.

  4. The complete liberal history of America, condensed:


  5. That’s a realy sad news.

  6. Mickey Rat|6.21.12 @ 6:44PM|#
    …”Do you see where you are going wrong?”

    Since MAV is a brand new troll, I’m guessing here:
    MAV is more than happy to let the ‘right people’ have access to an audience, since MSNBC et al don’t charge to have the anchor-critters spew their statist bullshit.
    But MAV is mighty pissed that those who don’t agree are allowed to spend money to do so.
    Am I right MAV?

  7. Walk in just in time to hear a lot of non-answers from the ObamaCare cheerleader.

    1. Uh, this thread is under the title:
      “Political Spending Doesn’t Lead to Corruption”
      FoE, I think you got the wrong screen.

  8. “Centered way of taking care of people.”

    What the hell does that even mean?

  9. I assume the part of the show I missed is where the doctor backed up her assertions with citations.

  10. Did Mr. Orange Tie say he wanted everyone to get cancer and die?

  11. Stossel’s show should go paperless. If nothing else he can save on binder twine (which I’m pretty sure looks like hemp).

  12. I don’t know if I can take this doctor seriously. His nose isn’t even pierced.

  13. John Stossel: Death Panel of One

  14. I didn’t get Daddy Warbucks’ point about the expensive cure for cancer.

  15. Obadiah Stane can’t tell Stossel’s sarcastic voice? How did he make all his money?

  16. Obesity isn’t really a pre-existing condition.

  17. Obviously I agree with Cliff but his presentation is not as persuasive as need be.

  18. Rich guys not hiring to make Obama look bad because they’re racist. Case closed.

  19. “One size fits all” is good for everyone. It’s right there in the name.

  20. Oh, no, you don’t want to buy across state lines. That would invoke the Interstate Commerce Clause.

  21. If you had contributed to the Obama campaign, you could have gotten an ObamaCare waiver.

  22. The state has decided that preventative care is mandatory so you don’t become a burden on the state.

  23. If you don’t like the VA healthcare system you don’t support the troops. Terrorist.

  24. A shot at Lilo from out of nowhere in Stoss’s closing arguments.

  25. Stoss probably drove to meat market in his free government golf cart.

    1. The episodes for his liveblog aren’t in sync with the article subjects.

      I find it endearing to see his liveblogs in these troubled times.

  26. Surely not everyone that works for a major news network is a corporate apologist. While I agree with your last paragraph why be so vigilant in defending corporations political spending when it so often results in things you disagree with. Wouldn’t limiting corporations political spending help to curb the growth of government.

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