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Deflating the Myths Behind Citizens United Part 2: The Quality of Sovereignty

Today, much of the popular press coverage of Citizens United focuses not on the victory for freedom at hand, but on a calculated campaign to inspire fear and doubt about trusting people with freedom. The self-styled reform crowd in Washington beats proudly a drum of panic — instilling the message that if more people speak, American democracy itself is doomed.

Asking some basic questions helps cut through this hullabaloo. Are you competent to listen to speech, evaluate arguments, and make decisions? Are you still competent to do so even if the speaker in question is wealthy, handsome, or charismatic? When pushed, the answer to these questions invariably is yes — as most claim ownership over one’s own ability to think, make decisions, and act appropriately. But the reform crowd would ask you to surrender these freedoms for state-sanctioned safety — insulation from the rough and tumble of competing ideas.

These kind of national forays into frenzies of doom and gloom reveal something quite important about our shared fundamental values. They also reveal a deep tension about which values we hold true. A blockbuster case like Citizens United is an excellent vehicle to bring some scrutiny to these affairs and to put our core values to a test of the highest order.

Perhaps Wilhelm von Humboldt got it best in 1792, because a “society in which the citizens were compelled to obey even the best behaviors might be a tranquil, peaceable, and prosperous one. But it would always seem to me a multitude of well-cared-for slaves, rather than a nation of free and independent men.” In sum, a consequential tension has existed for some time in our nation’s values since the rise of the Progressive Era. Do we still trust the people to be free or do we yield that freedom to commissions of good virtue, bureaucrats of busyness, and agencies of ample affection?

For too long, we have surrendered that which is most precious — our innermost sovereignty — to the political expediency of the day. In the realm of free speech, that left us with the United States government arguing before the Supreme Court that it possessed the authority to ban books if it found them somehow corrupting. My, how far we have slid.

Understood in this light, Citizens United stands as a cause for celebration — of life, sovereignty, and liberty. But the naysayers, and there are many, offer pleas of fear and doubt to undermine this sound reclamation. Corporations, it is said, will destroy the electoral process as we know it, pouring millions of dollars into campaigns to capture candidates.

Reality paints a different picture of how heightened competition will play out. Public servants answer to the sovereigns, the people, who alone share the power to hire or fire them. What about worst-case scenarios? When politicians do become tainted by the influence of money, their bosses soundly reject them by voting them out of office. And when the truly awful happens, like former Louisiana Congressman Jefferson hiding $90,000 in his freezer, existing criminal law offers just remedies.

Evidence bears out commonsense. 28 states permitted corporations to spend money on independent expenditures before Citizens United. Nothing in our national history illustrates that those 28 states are somehow beholden to corporate interests or controlled by corporate money. What’s more, corporations realize money only goes so far. The Center for Responsive Politics shows that total spending in 2009 on corporate lobbying was around $3.5 billion. Were lobbying and political expenditures truly able to capture the political process, corporations would spend much more of their general treasury funds to do so. In short, and perhaps in dismay of Chicken Little, corporations are not taking over American politics.

At the end of the day, we face two alternatives. We might reignite our honor of liberty and cherish the rough and tumble of the exchange of ideas and criticism of candidates for office. In doing so, we realize that sometimes we may stumble in our quest for truth, but in giving preference to freedom, we trust the living force of individual sovereignty over the deadened-hand of state alienation. We might go another way and capitulate that most sacred freedom in exchange for the promised safety of silence offered by those who fundamentally do not trust our capacity to be free. The Wyoming Liberty Group stands firmly against this precept.

I end with the realization our founders shared as expressed by Justice Hugo Black, in explaining that the framers “believed that the ultimate happiness and security of a nation lies in its ability to explore, to change, to grow and ceaselessly to adapt itself to new knowledge born of inquiry free from any kind of governmental control over the mind and spirit of man. Loyalty comes from love of good government, not fear of a bad one.

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Friday, 18 August 2017
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