Restrictions on pre-electoral spending by citizens and groups other than political parties and their candidates (known in the jargon as “third-party spending”) have gained a rather unlikely supporter: Tom Flanagan. Prof. Flanagan, arguably Canada’s most prominent conservative thinker, has come out in support of such restrictions in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail.
This might seem surprising because conservatives (and libertarians) have usually opposed restrictions on third-party spending, while the left supported them. (Indeed, prof. Flanagan says he opposed the enactment of third-party spending restrictions while Jean Chrétien was Prime Minister.) The support for restrictions was always based on the fear of the pernicious influence of moneyed interests in politics. John Rawls, for example, argued that without spending restrictions, the rich would take over the political process and prevent the enactment of the sort of re-distributive policies he thought were necessary for society to be just. But the reality, as it turns out, is more complicated, which explains prof. Flanagan’s change of heart.
Prof. Flanagan points out that during the last election campaign in Ontario, public-sector trade unions spent large amounts of money on electoral advertising: “[t]ogether, the three spent more on advertising in the writ period than either of the main parties.” Furthermore, this spending all pursued a single objective – to attack the Progressive Conservative Party. Prof. Flanagan argues that it thus effectively amounted to support for the Liberals. The unions would not have been able simply to give that much money to the Liberals, but the absence of limits on third-party spending allowed them to circumvent the limits on direct contributions to political parties.
Prof. Flanagan thinks this has terrible consequences, though if your politics differ from his, you are likely to disagree. What should not be controversial is that third-party spending limits – or their absence – do not necessarily have the effects Rawls and other supporters of these limits on the left expected them to have. It is not only the rich who have a lot of money. It is also the not-so-rich who are able to pool their resources together, through trade-unions for example, or student unions (which are bound to run into the strictures of Québec’s spending restrictions when an election is called, as I have been saying for months). They too are the moneyed interests whom third-party spending limits prevent from getting their message across as effectively as they would like. Both on the left and on the right, those whose opinion of spending limits is based on the conventional wisdom that they prevent the “rich” from gaining a stranglehold on the political process and thus help the “powerless” need to reconsider their views.