Without limits on political contributions, wealthy may sway elections

Categories: Changing our World,Visitor Columnist

April 25, 2014, edition
By Bernie Evans

Not an April Fool’s joke. On April 2 the Supreme Court struck down the overall limits on the total amount of money an individual may contribute to political candidates, parties, and political action committees.

One of the consequences of this decision is that wealthy contributors now may vastly increase their influence over elections.

The Court’s decision seems to rest on the claim that the right of free speech is more important than ensuring that all citizens have a more or less equal voice in electoral politics.

It argued that campaign finance reforms, like the McCain-Feingold 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, as well as various state limits on contributions violate free-speech rights of individuals.

In a society that values individual rights as highly as we do, it may seem difficult to argue against a court ruling that upholds such rights. Still, there are reasons to wonder if the Supreme Court got it right.

What the church teaches

Catholic social teachings recognize human rights — the right to life and everything needed to live that life with dignity. Pope John XXIII gave us a list of those rights in his 1963 encyclical, “Pacem in Terris.”

Among these he includes the right to food, clothing, shelter, education, the practice of religion and many more (11-27).

He noted the right and duty of every person to have a voice in governance: “The dignity of the human person involves the right to take an active part in public affairs and to contribute one’s part to the common good of the citizens” (26). Clearly these teachings support individual human rights.

But Catholic social teachings also suggest a point not recognized in the Supreme Court ruling. That is, there may be times when, for the sake of the greater community, we as individuals are asked not to exercise certain rights.

This is not saying that we give up our rights, but that in particular circumstances we limit the exercise of a particular right.

We all know the classic example that in a crowded theater no one has the right to exercise free speech by shouting out “Fire!”

Perhaps that line of thought can apply to political campaign contributions.

Equal opportunity eroded

Everyone has a right to support the candidate or party of their choice and one way to do that is by making financial contributions — what the courts refer to as an exercise of free speech.

But to allow anyone to contribute without limits to parties or to political action committees would seem to give a disproportionate voice in elections to persons with great financial resources. This carries the danger of eroding the kind of equal opportunity we normally associate with the democratic process.

In other words, the exercise of one’s right to free speech is not an absolute good; it is not a right without limits. Catholic social teaching has recognized this limitation on rights on many occasions.

One example is the 1967 encyclical, “On the Development of Peoples.” There Pope Paul VI noted that the right to private ownership (a right always recognized in church teachings) is not an absolute and unconditional right, but one subject to the more important right of everyone having their needs met. “(T)he right to property must never be exercised to the detriment of the common good” (23).

Neither should the right of free speech be exercised in a way that harms the larger community. Allowing very wealthy individuals to contribute unlimited sums of money to elect persons of their choice may do just that.

At the very least this action grants a greater voice, influence and power in political matters to those with greater financial resources. It is difficult to see how this serves the common good.

And now the Supreme Court is poised to consider a challenge to state laws that make it a crime to lie about a candidate during election campaigns.

How I wish this were all an April Fool’s joke!