In the current Congress, Democrats have already introduced legislation, and even a constitutional amendment, that would make it more difficult for citizens to make their common beliefs and messages heard at election time. Republicans, in contrast, resist bills that simply require better disclosure of those spending money to speak. Both sides are wrong. Permissive campaign spending with immediate disclosure is the best way to inform citizens about politics during a campaign, while empowering them to appropriately discount the special pleading of special interests. Thus Republicans should accept disclosure legislation and Democrats should stop trying to clamp down on political speech, which happens to be a right guaranteed by the First Amendment.
More political messaging at election time helps create a better informed democracy. Campaign advertisements actually improve public decisionmaking: they help educate voters who are less engaged with the news about the candidates in the race and the issues at stake. The votes of such citizens may prove decisive in electing a candidate who will help determine government spending of trillions of dollars, but far less is spent today on political advertisements that bolster our democracy than on consumer products such as toothpaste. And the problem of citizen inattention is growing; our new information technology multiplies the private distractions from public life.
Elections offer the best opportunity to direct citizens’ attention to politics. Candidates and their supporters have every incentive to capture the interest of voters. Of course, they provide only information favorable to their side. But their opponents have every incentive to counter distortions and falsehoods. The evidence suggests that the more campaign advertisements are aired, the better informed citizens become about candidate records and their policy positions. It is impossible for voters to make sensible choices about policy without such basic information.
And today, as we are beginning to get better assessments of the results of policies from experiments and empirical investigations, politicians can be expected to make these facts known. Finally, candidates can be held to better account for the successful or failed policies they supported or rejected. Critics lambast 30 second commercials as simplistic and dumbed down. But for many people, the alternative to a political advertisement is not a policy seminar, but a beer commercial.
Some worry that such spending empowers special interests. In truth, it is our current campaign laws that exacerbate the problem of special interests by sharply limiting the amount individuals can give to campaigns. Low ceilings on individual contributions force candidates to rely more on support from unions or trade associations. Besides raising individual donation limits, Congress and state legislators should also make disclosure laws much more stringent. With the advent of the Internet, citizens contributing to political campaigns and making independent expenditures can be disclosed rapidly and transparently. Voters can then draw their own conclusions about the relevance of a candidate’s sources of support. One study has already shown that speech supported by special interest spending is less effective at persuasion than other forms of speech.
A second concern is that permissive campaign spending empowers the wealthy. Of course, liberty always empowers those who can best make use of it, be they the wealthy, the glib, or the celebrated. We have a free speech guarantee in our constitution, not an equal speech guarantee.
But wealth is in fact a source of more diverse influences than the other sources that would take its place. The wealthy are heterogeneous in their views. In 2008 more people earning over 250,000 dollars a year voted for Barack Obama than John McCain despite his promise to raise their taxes. In contrast, campaign speech restrictions tend to privilege the influence of groups, like the press and entertainers that are far more ideologically homogenous.
Throughout history improvement in governance has tracked the improvement in access to information. The printing press was the cradle of modern democracy, and the post office created “national politics.” We now have new innovative ways to generate information about policy results—from big data and empirical methods to prediction markets. But we still face a problem as old as democracy itself: how to get ordinary citizens to pay attention to information and connect candidates to policy positions. Campaign spending is an imperfect way to inform voters, but just as democracy is the worst political system except for all the others, freedom for everyone to publicly express and promote their views remains the least bad alternative.