There are varying opinions on the relationship between wealth and politics regardless of your view; it is our duty keep wealth from corrupting politics. I imagine this is one of the reasons why financial regulation has been so often discussed today, specifically in attempting to disallow money to influence people’s decisions. Wealth’s influence in politics is not only an ethical problem, but it also creates a natural inequality problem. This issue resurfaces in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, which “eliminated some restrictions on how corporations can spend money in elections” (Bentley, 2). The decision of this case has only complicated the problem of wealth in politics. In this paper, I will scrutinize the problematic relationship between wealth in politics after the Citizens United case; and offer Walzer’s concept of complex equality as a possible solution to this problem.
Citizens United is a political action committee founded by Floyd Brown near the end of the 20th century. Citizens United promotes corporate interests, socially conservative causes, and candidates who advance their goals which are “limited government, freedom of enterprise, strong families, and national sovereignty and security” (Bentley, 2). Citizens United can be understood as an “ideological group, like the NRA or Planned Parenthood, except that it takes for-profit corporate funding” (Hasen, 1). In 2008 this group sought to air an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary during the presidential primary season on cable television in exchange for a $1.2 million fee. This action ran up against the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law passed in 2002 which, “bars certain corporate-funded television broadcasts, such as this documentary, in the 60 days before a general election(or the 30 days before a primary)”(Hasen,1).The Feingold law is a rather mild law because it does not hinder corporations from using their wealth and power as instruments of leverage for particular candidates. It is simply stating that they cannot do it within a certain period before a general election. Citizens United sued the F.E.C. with the objective of eradicating limits on corporate spending in political elections. In a 5-4 majority ruling, the justices declared “unconstitutional the government restrictions on “independent” political spending by corporations and unions and determined the anti-Clinton broadcast should have been allowed. The decision overturned a century-old precedent allowing the government to regulate such spending” (Bentley, 2).
What role if any does the government have in regulating spending? I think first we need to linger further on the effect of this case to answer that question. It is true that using wealth as leverage in politics has been a problem for some time; nevertheless Citizens United is significant because the ruling of this case brought to a halt progress in financial regulation. Those who are in favor of the ruling in Citizens United believe that corporations should be free of such laws because of their “perceived” first amendment rights. This sort of thinking stems from the idea that corporations should have an equal voice as “we the people” because they are a “legal entity”. The courts majority argued that “The First Amendment protects not just a person’s right to speak, but the act of speech itself regardless of the speaker. Therefore the First Amendment protects the speech of corporations and unions, whether we consider them people or not” (Bentley, 3). Although, corporations are treated as legal entity’s it is dangerous to assign a “right” of an individual to an institution who possesses much more authority and influence. It is evident that any major corporation has more influence than the average middle class American. This line of thinking creates instant inequalities because it gives corporate interests the ability to dominate the political sphere. It is the government’s responsibility to insure that the political process is just. However, The courts majority defend the decision by arguing , “although government has the authority to prevent corruption or “the appearance of corruption,” it has no place in determining whether large political expenditures are either of those things, so it may not impose spending limits on that basis”(Bentley,3). I disagree with this argument for two reasons. Firstly, if this is true than the McCain- Feingold act was wrongly enacted and established for 8 years. Secondly, what is the government’s duty but to enforce laws and protect “we the people’s” freedoms? The deontological ethical view requires us to base our decisions “on values such as honesty, promise keeping, fairness, loyalty, rights, justice responsibility…”(Trevino,42).This ethical view asks what the government’s ethical duty would be now that they that corporate expenditures threat pure democracy.
Justice Kennedy, a member of the majority in the case defended his decision by saying “…any limits on the independent spending of money in election smack of government censorship. The limits Congress enacted in 2002 remind him of English laws requiring licensing for speech….the government could soon start regulating political blogging” (Hasen, 2). I think Kennedy misses the point; the reason why financial regulation is necessary is because of the strength and persuasion of corporations or unions. This strength and persuasion of corporations or unions belittles the voice of an individual in the political process. The government is the only institution that has the capability to ensure an equal playing field in the area of politics. If one accepts money to be synonymous with speech politics become a sophisticated form of “might equals right”. Furthermore, Kennedy assumes “that corporations or unions can throw money at public officials without corrupting them” (Hasen, 2). I do not think that this means that everyone will be swayed by every dollar thrown at them; however it does mean that we should be cautious of the considerable power of money. It is my opinion that if money has even the slightest possibility of corrupting political officials, the government should remove that possibilty. The removal of the influence of money allows for a more genuine form of politics. It is myopic to ignore the potential harms of allowing unlimited expenditures of corporations or unions to those in political offices. In the article, Justice at Stake, the author argues that “a saint would be hard-pressed to disregard the fact that one litigant gave them a huge donation while the other gave nothing…Most of our judges are not saints” (1).Cash already held a prominent role prior to the decision in Citizens United, but the post-decision increase was astounding (case decided in 2010).
It is not definitive that this increase in spending is deciding elections, but some argue that special interests use this money to buy favorable treatment. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a retired judge, warned “In too many, states judicial elections are becoming political prizefights where partisans and special interest seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and the Constitution (Justice at Stake, 1). One cannot be certain that this influx of money into elections will have any true effect but it “does raise the risks of quid pro quo corruption” (Hasen, 2).Quid pro quo means “this for that” and it hints at a type of corruption that exchanges money for certain favors. Corruption has already infected the political process; therefore it is to America’s benefit that the government mediates. The government mediation can make the political process more ethical. Chris Macdonald, business ethicists, describes ethics as “finding rules that make social living better, but it assumes some overlap of interests. In particular, ethics only works where we have a shared sense that our lives—or our businesses—would go better if we followed a few rules. Ethics isn’t fundamentally about self-sacrifice; it’s about mutual restraint for mutual benefit“(Macdonald). Often time’s individuals address solution to ethical issues as rules that inhibit persons rights, but I think a better way to think of ethics are rules that require mutual restraint for mutual benefit. Preventing corporate or union spending in elections is not about taking away rights but about preserving the integrity of America’s political system, thus creating a trustworthy system that can be relied upon.
If the government neglects to ensure equality, in all arenas, but specifically in the political process inequality will follow. Inequality is created because corporations intrinsically have more power than one person and they use that power to dominate in the political sphere. Michael Walzer believes the solution to this type inequality is complex equality which “focuses on the reduction of dominance -not, or not primarily, on the break-up or the constraint of monopoly. We should consider what it might mean to narrow the range within which particular goods are convertible and to vindicate the autonomy of distributive spheres.” (Walzer, 217). Corporations power—a social good enables them to dominate in the political process—another social good. Walzer defines socials goods when he says “When meanings are distinct, distributions must be autonomous. Every social good or set of goods constitutes, as it were, a distributive sphere within which only certain criteria and arrangements are appropriate”(Walzer,214). Social goods are simply things we consider as valuable in culture such as education, the ability to vote, power and money. Walzer rightly reasons “No social good x should be distributed to men and women who possess some other good y merely because they possess y and without regard to the meaning of x”(Walzer,222). According to Walzer whenever individuals or institutions dominate more than one sphere—social goods inequality will be the result. The ruling of the Citizens United case violated Walzer’s principle because corporations or unions already possess power and influence—good y and the courts distributed unlimited expenditures in elections to corporation’s—good x. It the government’s duty to enforce and protect our individual rights through financial regulation, and when they fail to do so unjust inequality is the result.
The concept of complex equality is the solution to well-intentioned people who assume that they are just by allowing corporations to exercise the same first amendment rights that individual American has. The concept of complex equality can serve America as a tool to make democracy not just a name in theory but a reality in the minds and lives of the American public.