McCutcheon And The Danger Of Government Self-Promotion

Last week's McCutcheon decision from the Supreme Court illustrates as well as anything recently the sharp divide between the libertarian and progressive visions of the world; that is, the divide between the view that we are self-governing people with a limited government to set the ground rules, and the view that experts much smarter than ourselves should be given the power to run our lives.

The 5-4 decision broke down along the standard left-right lines.  All the Democrat-nominated justices would have upheld aggregate restrictions on campaign contributions as a permissible government restriction on freedom of speech.  Justice Breyer wrote the dissent.  Here is an excerpt from his introductory paragraph:

[The majority opinion] understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions. It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign. Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 558 U. S. 310 (2010), today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.

Having had this guy as a professor in law school (the course was Antitrust, the year 1974), and read a few of his decisions since, I can assure you that he completely buys into the view that all-knowing experts with powers of government at their disposal can fix all of our problems and lead us to a just and fair world.  

And thus to Justice Breyer it is a huge problem that "a single individual" might "contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate's campaign."  But in the Breyer world view, it is not a problem at all the the federal government itself spends not millions, but billions -- and billions and billions and more billions -- promoting itself and its ongoing expansion.  In Breyer/progressive world, that doesn't count.  It's just the neutral, all-knowing experts seeking to implement the grand plan for fairness and justice.   That doesn't have any effect whatsoever on government legitimacy; they're just doing what they're supposed to do.  But if an individual seeks to contribute "millions," why, that leads to "grave problems of democratic legitimacy."

Well, Justice Breyer, with the federal government spending many, many billions to promote its own expansion and seeking to swamp the field with its own message so that no one else can be heard, and then enacting and enforcing a statute to limit how much individuals can spend to respond, how exactly can it remain possible for the opponents of government expansion to push back?  Or is opposition to government expansion, and to the consolidation of rule by the experts, just out of bounds in your view?

Let's have a little round-up of just a few of the many, many programs of the federal government's promotion of its own expansion going on now or recently.

  • In his "Best of the Web" column on April 2, James Taranto reminds us that the Associated Press did a study last year on how much the federal government was planning to spend on the advertising campaign to get people to sign up for Obamacare, They came up with an annual figure of $684 million. 
  • And how about throwing out tens of billions in new subsidies to get more people enrolled in Medicaid.  The New York Times reports on Saturday April 5 (may be behind pay wall) that Obamacare had led to 3 million new enrollments in that program.
  • The there is the fact that the food stamp (SNAP) program has nearly doubled under Obama, even though these five years have supposedly been a time of economic recovery.  The reason is an aggressive promotion campaign to get people who previously declined onto the program.  Here is an article I wrote on the subject, linking to more reporting from the Washington Post.
  • For a real doozy, here's one brought to my attention through an article presented at the meeting of the Shadow Open Market Committee that I attended on March 14.  The author of the article is Charles Calomiris (of Columbia University):  "The Fed was given [the role of arbiter of bank mergers] precisely because it could be counted upon to go along with ill-conceived government policy, which designed the merger approval process to be a source of rent creation for merging mega banks in the 1990s, so that those rents could be shared between merging banks and community activist groups, which were given power by legislation to influence the merger approval process. . . .  Fed bank merger hearings were mainly focused on the testimony of activist groups about whether the merging banks were 'good citizens,' a trait that was measured by the amount of loans and grants the merging banks had contractually promised to give the activists as the quid pro quo for their testimony.  Those contractual promises exceeded $850 billion from 1992 to 2006."  Yes, it's $850 billion
  • Here's one I've written about many times:  the reporting of GDP to count government spending, no matter how wasteful, at 100 cents on the dollar.  Thus any shrinkage of the government, no matter how ill-conceived the slashed program may have been, results in apparent dollar-for-dollar reduction of GDP.  How is this other than sheer self-promotion by the government?  The fraudulent, self-promoting compilation of GDP is a multi-tens of millions of dollars per year effort.
  • Or how about the reporting of the "poverty" rate in such a way that government anti-poverty spending does not count and does not reduce the number of people in "poverty," thus allowing the persistence of "poverty" to be used to advocate for yet more "anti-poverty" spending.  The government spends tens of millions of dollars annually compiling these data, in an effort that no private citizen, or group of private citizens, could hope to duplicate.

I could continue, but I think by this time you get the picture.  Is anyone to be allowed to amass enough resources to push back even a little?  For now, a 5-4 vote allows a little of it.  In Breyer world, only the government's own voice could be heard.  And the government really wants only one thing, which is to expand and increase its own power.