Citizens United — Is the Gas Pedal Stuck?

Columnists are supposed to be opinionated. As a matter of convention, a column on an issue should express some strong opinion about it. Sorry to disappoint, but all I can do is raise some questions to which I have no satisfactory answers.

Libertarians commonly argue that campaign finance regulations are a restriction on free speech. Yes, but …

I try to use what Objectivist scholar Chris Sciabarra calls “dialectical libertarianism” as a tool for analyzing issues.  That means a state action should be evaluated not in terms of its formal statism in static isolation, but in terms of its functional relationship to the larger system of state power.

State interventions can be broken down, for the sake of the present discussion, into 1) primary structural interventions that serve the overall needs of the system of power, and 2) secondary ameliorative interventions that cushion the negative side effects of primary interventions.

Primary interventions include subsidies to privileged economic actors, protecting them from market competition and enforcing artificial property rights and artificial scarcities that enable them to collect monopoly rents. 

Secondary interventions include regulatory and welfare state measures that constrain those privileged actors from abusing their privilege in ways that undermine the long-term stability of the system. Such secondary interventions are intended to prevent, among other things, levels of destitution, homelessness and starvation that might destabilize the political system. They serve to make the system of privilege at least minimally endurable on a human level.

Viewing such secondary interventions in this light, we can plausibly see them as reductions in statism:  i.e., as limits or qualifications on the exercise of a state grant of power. Eliminating the secondary ameliorative interventions, without addressing the primary structural interventions they’re designed to compensate for, amounts to increasing the fundamental statism resulting from those primary grants of privilege.

Back to campaign finance: According to liberal critics, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, handed down earlier this year, enables the corporate plutocracy to buy up the political system. I’m inclined to agree.

From a libertarian standpoint, corporate lobbying is rent-seeking — substituting legislation for production as a source of profits the corporation couldn’t earn through legitimate economic means in a free market. As Roderick Long, Director of the Molinari Institute, put it:  A corporation can invest $10 million in electing politicians who will pass legislation that increases the company’s profits by a billion dollars.  That’s a pretty good ROI.

Now, thanks to Citizens United” according to analyst Charles Hugh Smith (one of the better writers on the crisis tendencies of late corporate capitalism), we’re entering a positive feedback loop (“Concentrated Wealth and the Purchase of Political Power,” Of Two Minds, Oct. 29).

The richer the plutocracy gets through political means, the greater its resources to invest in the political system and tighten its hold on the state, which increases its wealth still further — and so on, and so on, in an endless death spiral.

So maybe regulating the way money can be spent to influence elections was one of those secondary qualifications I mentioned above. Maybe it was a sort of governor that prevented the system from entering the uncontrolled positive feedback loop that Smith describes.  Maybe the undoing of McCain-Feingold was a tipping point of sorts, akin to methane bubbling up from the warming seabeds and melting permafrost and causing the greenhouse effect to accelerate out of control.

From a dialectical libertarian standpoint, statism inheres in the functioning of the overall system, rather than in the formal statism of its static individual parts taken in isolation. And I have a sick suspicion that Citizens United will lead to a massive increase in the statism of the overall system. I’m inclined to believe the decision amounted to an act of the state removing one of the few remaining limits on its own statism.

What’s the practical implication for us market anarchists?  What should we do?  Well, remember I mentioned at the outset that this column would mainly raise questions, not answer them.

I really don’t think there’s much we can do, from the standpoint of undoing the decision. The damage is probably done, and irreversible. And even given an outside chance, from an anarchist standpoint political action wastes resources far more effectively invested in building a better society.

About all we can do is take this as a sign of the times, another configuration of the stars indicating that Babylon the Great is on its way down. We can get out of the way and avoid getting in the way of the crash.  And we can do our best to have a new system in place when the crash happens.

Citations to this article:

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist