Political Contributions

Official 2005 photo of Chief Justice John G. R...

Official 2005 photo of Chief Justice John G. Roberts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a young political science/philosophy major I learned about the various types of governments. Among these is the plutocracy—rule by the wealthy. I recall thinking, in my young anarchist days, that all governments were, are and will be plutocracies. After all, the rich always have influence proportional to their wealth and society tends to head in the direction desired by the wealthy. I was aware, of course, that there can be momentary disruptions of the plutocracy. For example, a rebellion or revolution might result in the old rich being killed, exiled or stripped of their wealth. However, history clearly shows that a new rich always emerges (or the old rich return). Even in the allegedly communist states, a wealthy class has always appeared. As such, the plutocratic system seems to be eternal.

As might be imagined, my cynical view was countered by some of my fellows—they insisted that America was a democracy and not a plutocracy. After all, it was argued, the rich do not always get their way in everything and money did not always decide elections. In fact, it was pointed out that there were strict restrictions on political spending. A plutocracy would obviously not have such limits.  As such, it was reasonable to conclude that my younger anarchist self was in error. But perhaps I was right after all—there is an ongoing trend to make America into a plutocracy by eliminating restrictions on political spending.

One major move in this regards was the Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited campaign spending by corporations on the grounds that corporations are people, spending is speech and people have a right to free speech. The idea that corporations are people can be easily disproven by a simple reduction ad absurdum: If corporations have the right to free speech because they are people, then they cannot be owned. After all, the constitution expressly forbids slavery (that is, the ownership of people). To contend that corporations can be owned yet are people who have freedom of speech is to either accept slavery or to fail to grasp the logical notion of consistency. So, a corporation can have freedom of speech, provided it is set free from being owned. Since it is blindingly obvious that corporations are things that can be justly owned, it should be blindingly obvious that they are not people. As such, they do not get freedom of speech. Naturally, the actual people associated with corporations have their right to freedom of speech. What remains is, of course, the matter of whether spending is speech or not.

The Supreme Court, or at least five of the current judges, holds that spending is speech. On 4/2/2014 the aggregate campaign contribution limits were struck down. This was based, not surprisingly, on the Citizens United ruling in 2010.  That ruling included the apparently absurd claim that the influence and access offered by such unlimited spending is not a concern in regards to corruption.

The case at hand was brought by Shaun McCutcheon—a very wealthy Republican donor. The impact of his victory is that a single donor, such as McCutcheon, will be able to contribute millions to parties, candidates and PACs. The ruling does leave some limits in place: an individual can give:  $2,600 per candidate, per election; $32,400 to political party committees per year; and $5,000 per PAC, per year. The main change is that there is no longer an overall cap to the total donations. Previously, a donor could not give more than $123,200 to all political committees, with limits of $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to political parties and PACs.

McCutcheon claims that this is a grassroots victory against the status quo:  “With the ruling, we continue to chip away at the long entrenched status quo from the grassroots—a status quo that has kept challengers, better ideas, and new entrants to the political arena mostly locked out. Ensuring that citizens are able to contribute to multiple candidates or causes who share their views only provides further support to a system in which ‘We the People’ hold the ultimate reins of power.”

This seems like an odd claim, given that it primarily benefits those who are wealthy enough to make such donations as opposed to the average citizen who will lack the funds to take advantage of this ruling. This ruling would seem to weaken what little grasp the people still have on the reins of power and give the very wealthy a stronger grip. Not surprisingly, this ruling will be a boon for the Republican party. In recent years it has done poorly with small donors (that is, the vast majority of the citizens) and relies very heavily on large donors. This ruling will allow the Republicans to greatly reduce the need for grassroots financial support and instead rely on a few very wealthy donors for financial support. While it is true that the Democrats also have their wealthy supporters, the Democrats rely more heavily on large numbers of small donations.

As might be imagined, there are concerns that this ruling will lead to increased corruption and increased influence on politics by the wealthy. On the face of it, these seem to be the obvious consequences of lifting such restrictions and allowing the money to flow more freely into politics. After all, the original purpose of the restrictions was to address problems with corruption and influence buying. While those who support it insist that corruption and influence buying will not be increased (which seems patently false and unsupported by evidence) they also appeal to a core principle, namely that of freedom. As Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner said, “What I think this means is freedom of speech is being upheld. Donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give.”

The basic issue, then, is whether such spending is speech.  In regards to spending being free speech, that seems dubious. Suppose that spending money for political purposes is considered speech. Now, it is clearly acceptable to try to persuade a politician by speaking to him or her. If spending is speech, then I should be able to try to persuade politicians by speaking to them with money. However, this sort of thing already has a name, specifically bribery. But, if spending is a form of free speech, it would seem that bribery should be acceptable as a form of free speech. This seems absurd, to say the least.

It might be countered that the contributions cannot be direct bribes in that there can be no direct giving of money in return for specific actions or promises to act. However, it would be extremely naive to believe that campaign financing is not intended to do just that—namely to influence behavior by providing money and support. After all, it would seem rather ludicrous to imagine that millionaires and billionaires would donate millions of dollars and expect nothing in return. While this is not logically impossible, it is exceptionally unlikely.

However, suppose that spending is taken as a form of speech and thus protected by the right of free expression. It does not, of course, follow that such speech should be free of limits. After all, limits are justly placed on speech in other cases. The stock example is the yelling of “fire” in a crowded theater in which there is no fire. In the case of allowing this sort of spending, it would do serious harm to the political process by increasing the influence of an individual based on his wealth and thus proportionally decreasing the influence of those who are less wealthy. To use an analogy, it is on par with having a public discussion in which the wealthy are allowed to use a powerful sound systems up on the stage and less wealthy individuals are expected to try to shout out their views from the crowd.

To counter arguments like this, Roberts made an analogy to newspaper endorsements. As he said, there is no limit to the number of candidates a newspaper can endorse. As such, by analogy, it should follow that there should not be a limit on the number of candidates a person can donate money to. There are two easy and obvious replies. The first is to go back to the original argument that spending is not speech. While a newspaper endorsement is clearly speech—it is the expression of ideas and views, handing people money does not seem to qualify as an expression of ideas and views. When I buy a pair of running shoes or pay my entry to a race, I am not engaged in expression—I am trading money for goods and services. Likewise, when a person donates to a political cause, they are trading money for goods and services. But, if it is accepted that spending is speech, there is still a significant difference. A newspaper endorsement works by persuasion—one is either swayed by it or not. In contrast, large sums of money have far more impact: money allows people to become viable candidates and it allows them to run campaigns. As such, the influence of money is clearly more significant than the influence of a newspaper endorsement and this increases the likelihood of corruption.

This returns to the corruption issue. My contention is that such a flow of money will lead to corruption and grant the wealthy even more influence, while reducing the political influence of the less wealthy even more. The competing claim is that allowing this sort of spending will not have any negative impact. Given the usual effect of large sums of money, I would claim that increased corruption seems to be the likely outcome. However, I will consider any arguments and evidence to the contrary.


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  1. Dennis Sceviour

    Mike wrote, “My contention is that such a flow of money will lead to corruption and grant the wealthy even more influence, while reducing the political influence of the less wealthy even more.”

    Campaign contributions are the price for democracy. Campaign funds may be corrupt for other reasons, but this statement looks like an inductive error. Could you expand on your reasoning that campaign contributions will help the rich get richer and more powerful, and perhaps give specific examples if possible?

  2. “Could you expand on your reasoning that campaign contributions will help the rich get richer and more powerful, and perhaps give specific examples if possible?”

    I might be wrong, in fact I wish I am wrong, but the USA is becoming a very good example. Anyone that can make a significant contribution to a candidate can significantly influence and even determine who this person will be and what he will support. This can include benefits to the donor commercial interest. With no money, you can not win elections. People with less means will have significant less influence in the outcome.
    Why is this an inductive error? John Doe, having minimal wage, will have only his vote and his campaign work to contribute. But any wealthy american can fund a campaign that aligns with his own interests. The disparity seems obvious to me. But I might be wrong

  3. Dennis Sceviour

    John M,
    “Why is this an inductive error?”

    As Mike poignantly stated, history clearly shows that a new rich always emerges (or the old rich return) no matter what the political system is called. On that basis, it can be concluded campaign contributions will not stop this from happening. Between the election and any government legislation that might benefit a wealthy American, is a long road of congressional hearings and Presidential vetoes. An American campaign contributor cannot benefit by the contribution while ignoring everyone else. To suggest campaign contributions make the rich richer and lead to corruption is arriving at a wrong conclusion for the wrong reasons.

    “Anyone that can make a significant contribution to a candidate can significantly influence and even determine who this person will be and what he will support.”

    That is what democracy means. While not perfect, no one has invented a better system. In any case, the candidacy theory falls apart when one considers that many people make their donations to a political party and not to a specific candiadate. It must be conceded not everyone agrees with these points of view. Perhaps you are not wrong John, and maybe you have some suggestions to improve the campaign contribution method.

  4. Dennis;

    I will divide my response in two parts. Here is the first

    “Anyone that can make a significant contribution to a candidate can significantly influence and even determine who this person will be and what he will support.”

    “That is what democracy means.”

    I am not certain that I agree and I believe- I might be wrong- that is not what american founders intended to.
    The current supreme court judgement only affects ~ 700 people- those who have enough money to make those contributions. These people practically select our government, not the popular vote. American founders always warned against the accumulation of power in small groups.
    In addition, democracy-free speech- does not mean corruption. The supreme court decision narrowed the definition of corruption to an extreme – ie there has to be an explicit or very clear quid pro quo interaction. Basically, giving money directly to a public official for some benefit. But if any person says I will give $$$ to whoever does Y, and any candidate changes his platform or soften a position; that will not be considered corruption.

    For me democracy in action-or a representative government- does not mean corruption. It appears to me that without good rules we run a strong risk of rich people buying a favorable government that bends the rules to favor them.

  5. Dennis Sceviour

    Here is a link to the McCutcheon decision:


  6. Dennis Sceviour

    John M,
    Much of the McCutcheon opinion is devoted to arguing the definition of corruption as quid pro quo interaction. Within the context of the current discussion, quid pro quo is a euphemism for post-election lobbying, influence peddling, bribes, kickbacks and payoffs. From the point of view of philosophy, it is doubtful quid pro quo is a complete definition of corruption. Some philosophers may not agree with comparing the definition of corruption with quid pro quo for distinguishing the difference between campaign election funds and post-election government interference, even if it is unfair to mix the two topics. Plato wrote volumes of dialogue trying to define the meaning of the word good, yet somehow the definition always seemed elusive. Threats, defamation, undue influence, fraud and extortion are also corrupt methods but would not fall under the category of quid pro quo.

    However, out of that Herculean task you derive “But if any person says I will give $$$ to whoever does Y, and any candidate changes his platform or soften a position; that will not be considered corruption”. That seems reasonable and does follow my previous comments about the inductive error of suggesting campaign contributions will lead to a greater division of wealth and power. Can we agree that it is wrong to persecute the small grass roots American campaign contributor with accusations of corruption?

    The 700-person figure is interesting although the McCutcheon decision did not specifically mention any such number. “Those who have enough money to make those contributions” does not seem adequate for a definition. Before making any further speculations, where did the number come from?

  7. Dennis;

    Interesting message but what are your fundamental points. They are not very clear to me, perhaps I am not reading clearly.

    What would be for you the definition of corruption?

    Is there any significant corruption in the current political system in the USA? Both pre-election and after elections?

    Is big money a significant contributor?

    Will laws help to prevent this corruption?

    I am not clear on your position, or can it be summarize as the current corruption levels of the system are acceptable to you because they are part of it ?

    Just help me understand

  8. Dennis Sceviour

    John M,
    Perhaps you might wait for some other commentators to answer your questions better.

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