Jacob Sullum

In the two weeks before this month's Super Tuesday primaries, The Wall Street Journal reports, "outside political action committees supporting the Republican presidential hopefuls spent three times as much as the candidates themselves."

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., says the "undue influence" of these so-called super PACs, which can collect and spend as much as they want as long as they do not coordinate with candidates, "strikes at the heart of our democracy."

If so, super PACs are more like a jolt from a defibrillator than a dagger in the chest. In both presidential and congressional primaries, these independent groups, funded mainly by wealthy individuals, have increased competitiveness, which is usually considered good for democracy.

Rich people have always been free to spend their own money on political messages, either directly or (more controversially) through proxies such as 527 groups (named after a section of the Internal Revenue Code). But 2010 decisions by the Supreme Court and a federal appeals court seem to have encouraged such activity by explicitly recognizing a right to pool resources for independent expenditures.

Critics argue, as Price did in U.S. News last month, that "outside groups shouldn't be able to spend unlimited sums of money to hijack the marketplace of ideas and drown out other voices, including those of candidates themselves."

Note that Price identifies the people who talk too much as outsiders, as opposed to the insiders he prefers. The Supreme Court has rightly rejected this sort of reasoning, saying the First Amendment does not allow the government to mute the voices of some so that others may be heard.

In any case, the result Price fears -- that freedom of speech will allow rich people to dominate the discourse and dictate electoral outcomes -- has not transpired. To the contrary, super PACs have made races less predictable and more interesting, giving a boost to candidates who otherwise would have been crippled by a lack of money.

Even opponents of super PACs concede they have made the GOP presidential contest more competitive. "Take away the super PACs," the Sunlight Foundation's editorial director recently told Slate's David Weigel, "and (Rick) Santorum would have probably had to drop out after Iowa. (Newt) Gingrich might have had to drop out after South Carolina."


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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