What is the sound of one institution campaigning?

Via the Agonist, this post by Angry Bear brings up a good point about institutional political speech:

I'm no attorney, but my understanding is that political campaign donations are largely considered to be speech. If I understand correctly, the idea is that the First Amendment not only gives me the right to speak, it also gives me the right to let someone else speak for me. Since I can use my resources to publicize my own speech, I should be able to use my resources to publicize speech someone else makes in my stead. There's a problem with that… There are costs to speech. For example, I can say I think Greg Mankiw is a hack and there will likely be no consequences. However, if I outright call Greg Mankiw a hack, I can be sued for libel. Similarly, if a PAC calls a Jack a hack, the Jack can whack the PAC with a suit. But, I, as a donor, am not subject to the suit. So if donating money to a PAC is free speech, it seems to be a very strange kind of free speech, one with no consequences. I would think it makes sense to either put limits on money in politics, or to open up donations to the same sort of libel laws to which regular speech is subject.

Indeed. Now, I'm not arguing that the ACLU and PACs should be barred from politics. However, we must understand that in a political climate where corporations and other institutions with agendas and limited liability dominate, the only way to systemically combat them is through yet more institutions. As these institutions direct the game more and more, the individuals who are affected by their actions have less and less participatory say. They become amoral functions in a system, abstract "interests", rather than actors with rights and responsibilities to balance in the course of their lives with other human beings.

The domain of politics is irretrievably out of scale with the kinds of interests an individual can authentically comprehend in any moral sense - the only sense in which "rights" have any consequence. Perhaps we should worry less about whether both sides of any given issue have institutional advocates and ask: can meaningful politics can occur through these abstract mechanisms? Or is there something about an individual that is irreducible and intimately connected with the rights articulated by the authors of our Constitution?

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Written on Thursday, January 04, 2007