Motivated by the recent scandals involving Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., The New Republic has a fascinating short article titled “How Campaign Finance Laws Made the British Press So Powerful.” In a nutshell, the article explains how Britain’s stringent campaign finance laws have pushed political influence to the one outlet that is largely unregulated: newspapers.
The story illustrates the inevitable problem with campaign finance laws: Any scheme that tries to limit political influence by one group is always going to shift political influence to some other group. Somebody has to be the most influential—this isn’t Lake Wobegon and we can’t all have above-average political influence. And, as the story also reveals, this shift almost always leads to calls for even more regulation:
To some, this situation may reveal the problem of campaign finance laws: By trying to prevent parties from spending large sums of money and stopping wealthy independent organizations from dominating the campaign, the relative voice of the newspapers is enhanced. But rather than admit that campaign finance laws are futile, one might also conclude that controls on campaign spending should be complemented by attempts to address media power.
Luckily, as the article’s author notes, “Such measures would be unthinkable under the First Amendment.” That’s a bit of an overstatement—American law professors have thought it, but thankfully there is little chance of such proposals being adopted and even less chance of them surviving judicial scrutiny. That’s good news because, if history is any guide, media censorship wouldn’t be the end of it. Ultimately, there is only one way to achieve the “reformers’” vision of equal political influence: mandating equal silence.
Update, Dec. 19, 2011: This blog post is now available in Slovenian.