Guaranteeing Equal Financial Opportunity for Political Participation: How Ideal Theory Informs the Debate Over Campaign Finance Reform

Dissertation, The University of Wisconsin - Madison (2003)

The 1976 Buckley v. Valeo U.S. Supreme Court decision, for the first time, directly addressed the constitutionality of spending limits for federal election campaigns. By ruling that expenditure limits violate the First Amendment, the majority in Buckley set out the controversial position that efforts to equalize opportunities for political influence---by limiting the use of private property in the political sphere---conflict with the basic liberties of freedom of political expression and association. In this dissertation I argue that the Court was right to see a basic conflict between these two interests , but that the Court failed to recognize the importance of corruption understood more broadly than the exchange of political favors for money. ;As a matter of political theory, not necessarily constitutional law, there is a fundamental harm to democracy that arises from large inequalities in financial opportunity for political participation. This harm is best expressed as unequal representation resulting in lack of legitimacy. On the other side, there is, at some point, a fundamental harm to liberty of expression from restrictions on the use of private resources for political expression and association. This harm is best expressed as harm to autonomy for individual expression and communication. ;I argue that this conflict is best resolved in ideal theory where equal opportunity for political influence is dependent on a theory of distributive justice that allows citizens to freely spend private resources for political participation without interference by the state. Theories of distributive justice, such as Rawls's, have difficulty resolving the tension between political equality and free expression because these theories require insulation strategies that present a number of practical and theoretical difficulties. However, in the non-ideal setting, insulation strategies are the only option. Under these conditions I argue against contribution and spending limits in favor of restrictions on the use of private resources for broadcast communication as the approach most likely to minimize both kinds of harm to a liberal democracy
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