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A libertarian fallacy about government

February 19, 2010

Will Wilkinson effectively concedes that the Citizens United ruling will have undesirable effects but defends it anyway. He thinks government is already so tainted by special interests that any attempt at reform is simply futile. Even a law limiting the influence of special interests will inevitably bear their corrupting influence. So of course it can only make things worse:

But the granddaddy of all progressive errors – the one that breeds all others — is the assumption that greater government power can rectify the problem of unequal citizen power. Government can only act as a “countervailing force” in this regard if it is not acting already to serve corporate and special interests. But it is [so acting]. That is why new government powers merely augment, rather than offset, the already disproportionate power of entrenched interests.

But this is a ridiculous argument. Exactly which special interest is illicitly served by limiting the influence of special interests? The anti-special interest special interest? It also commits something like the genetic fallacy, arguing against a law because of where it comes from, not what it does. So what if a law is backed by certain entrenched interests? Its legislative origin may be a reason for taking a second, harder look at it, going over it with a fine-toothed comb, as it were, but it’s at best reason for skepticism, not condemnation. If purity of intention were relevant, no law would stand up to scrutiny. Then again, perhaps this is why libertarians like Wilkinson are so down on the very institution of government in the first place.

Wilkinson might have a case if the situation were different, for example, if the proposal were to set up some kind of ‘free speech panel’ that allowed corporately funded political advertisements on a case-by-case basis. That almost certainly would amplify the power of already entrenched interests. Or at least it would if it weren’t all just a fiction.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kwame permalink
    February 20, 2010 2:22 am

    Maybe tag under “would need a constitutional amendment”; under same heading: “line-item veto”?

    Wilkinson’s argument looks much better than Obama’s argument: “The Supreme Court’s ruling will have bad consequences; therefore, they made the wrong decision.” Apparently, on Obama’s view there are no such things as legal rights — only expediency.

    I guess Obama isn’t qualified to be a lawyer either.

    • February 20, 2010 2:40 am

      Constitutionality is a separate (but important!) issue. Wilkinson’s point is that even if the ban on corporate advertising were constitutional it would still be counterproductive, and it’s his argument for this point that I was criticizing.

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