A Final Conversation with Ken Gordon

Ken Gordon was always baffling to me—how could such an intelligent man be wrong about practically everything? Gordon was one of my favorite Democrats despite our frequent disagreements, and I was saddened to learn that he passed away suddenly Sunday.

If memory serves, I first met Gordon in the political aftermath of the horrific Columbine High School murders, when he wanted more restrictive gun laws and I defended people’s right to keep and bear arms. Among other things, Gordon wanted additional liability for gun owners; I argued the laws he proposed would be used to persecute gun owners and that existing laws adequately addressed such matters as child endangerment.

More recently, Gordon and I tangled over the campaign finance laws; you can view a first and second debate between us.

Just a couple weeks ago Gordon and I exchanged emails on the subject. Sadly, that is the final conversation we will share. I thought I’d reproduce it here in his honor.

On December 10, Gordon sent out an email to a list to the effect that people don’t like big money in politics. I thought I’d get in a quick dig by pointing out that, in the recent recall elections in which two Colorado Democrats lost their seats in the state senate, the politicians lost despite huge spending advantages. I wrote, “Yes, isn’t it just wonderful that Morse, Giron, and Am. 66 lost despite radical spending advantages?”

He responded:

You are cherry picking examples to suit your position. In the vast majority of cases the most well funded candidate wins, and you know this. Are you in favor of unlimited contributions and expenditures in campaigns? If so you are in favor of a Congress similar to the current one which cares more about the capital gains rate than it does about hunger, because that is what the funders care about.

A libertarian philosophy leads to vast concentrations of wealth and political power in the hands of the few and the destruction of the concept of political equality.


I wrote back:

“You are cherry picking examples to suit your position.”

I wasn’t making an argument here; I was merely responding positively to your point that many people do not respond to high-dollar campaigns.

“In the vast majority of cases the most well funded candidate wins, and you know this.”

In most cases, a candidate is well funded because the candidate has a lot of popular support. To a substantial degree you’re reversing cause and effect.

“Are you in favor of unlimited contributions and expenditures in campaigns?”

Yes. If contributions are limited, then who is doing the limiting? The answer is government. When government forcibly prevents people from spending their own resources on speech, then that’s censorship, and I oppose censorship.

“If so you are in favor of a Congress similar to the current one which cares more about the capital gains rate than it does about hunger, because that is what the funders care about.”

That’s a non-sequitur. (As a matter of fact, I think Congress should be involved with capital gains at the same level that it is involved with hunger, which is to say not involved at all.)

“A libertarian philosophy leads to vast concentrations of wealth and political power in the hands of the few and the destruction of the concept of political equality.”

a) I’m not a libertarian. b) My political philosophy calls for minimal political power, such that it can be concentrated neither in the hands “of the few” nor in the hands “of the many.” c) I advocate equal legal protection of individual rights, not coercively achieved “equality” of outcomes.

Thanks, -Ari

He replied:

Well I think we agree on some of this.  I don’t want coercively achieved equality of outcomes. I want equal opportunity, including the opportunity to fail.  To me this seems to be an argument for a good public education system.  How do you feel about this?


I thought we’d already had a pretty ambitious email exchange for one day, and I didn’t want to get into a deeper discussion about “public” education, so I let the matter go.

I was always pleased when I helped beat Ken in his political battles and always sorry when he beat me. But I was honored to trade barbs with him, and I’ll miss the opportunity to do so again.

Notes on Money in Politics

This evening I’m scheduled to talk about money in politics with a local college class. As I’m looking up some articles for this purpose, I thought I might as well provide some links and discussion here.

The main point of this evening’s discussion is to debate Amendment 65, about which I have written and spoken at length. Please see my collected commentary and links. However, my hope is to take the conversation in a broader direction tonight. The main question I want to examine here is how much “big money” actually influences politics. Of course, this issue represents only a small slice of the discussion, but a relevant one.

The main thesis in this regard is a simple one: People have brains. We are not mindless automatons, zombies passively influenced by whatever advertisements impinge on our senses. Rather, we have the capacity for reason, for thinking critically about the messages we see. When we’re talking about money in politics, we’re talking about people spending resources in an effort to persuade others (voters) to behave in a certain way. Because people have reasoning minds, the impact of money in politics is necessarily limited.

Let’s begin with some comments from Steve Simpson (shown in the photo), whom I interviewed this summer:

There are too many examples of expensive advertising flops or rich candidates who lost elections to take seriously the claim that money buys elections. Ross Perot, Michael Huffington, Meg Whitman, Jon Corzine—the list of candidates who have spent huge amounts of money and lost goes on and on. A certain amount of money is necessary to be a contender in an election. Beyond that, candidates win or lose because they have messages and support policies that the voters like.

To take a Colorado example, last year, Colorado voters rejected Prop. 103, a school tax measure, by a margin of 63 to 37 percent—an overwhelming defeat by any measure. And yet, as the Denver Post reported, “Supporters raised more than $600,000 in the effort to pass 103, while opponents raised less than a tenth of that.”

In 2003, Colorado voters rejected Referendum A, concerning water bonds, by even bigger margins: 67 to 33 percent.

A Denver Post article from November 5, 2003 (“Colorado In ‘No’ Mood,” by Joey Bunch) reviews:

Referendum A appeared headed for easy passage. Owens put his campaign aces on Referendum A and helped raise more than $750,000 to promote its passage.

He collected huge donations from corporations and residential developers.

The opposition group Vote No on A raised less than half that. High-profile opponents included Attorney General Ken Salazar and former governors Dick Lamm, Roy Romer and John Vanderhoof.

Moving to broader studies, Stephen Dubner summarizes a paper by his Freakonomics coauthor Steve Livitt finding that a candidate can double or halve campaign spending and impact the outcome only by a point in either direction.

Dubner continues:

What Levitt’s study suggests is that money doesn’t necessarily cause a candidate to win—but, rather, that the kind of candidate who’s attractive to voters also ends up attracting a lot of money. So winning an election and raising money do go together, just as rain and umbrellas go together. But umbrellas don’t cause the rain. And it doesn’t seem as if money really causes electoral victories either, at least not nearly to the extent that the conventional wisdom says. For every well-funded candidate who seems to confirm that money buys elections (paging Michael Bloomberg), you can find counterexamples like Meg Whitman, Linda McMahon, Steve Forbes, and Tom Golisano.

Dubner also rounds up the views of other economists, including Jeff Milyo, who writes:

[L]arge shocks to campaign spending from changes in campaign finance regulations do not produce concomitant impacts on electoral success, nor do candidates with vast personal wealth to spend on their campaigns fare better than other candidates.

These findings may be surprising at first blush, but the intuition isn’t that hard to grasp. After all, how many people do you know who ever change their minds on something important like their political beliefs (well, other than liberal Republicans who find themselves running for national office)? People just aren’t that malleable; and for that reason, campaign spending is far less important in determining election outcomes than many people believe (or fear).

But what of the left’s endless incantation, “Corporations aren’t people!” Besides the obvious fact that corporations are composed of individual people, each of whom with rights, it just ain’t true that corporate spending dominates politics.

Steve Chapman writes for Reason: “Of the $96 million donated to these political operations [Super PACs], 86 percent has come from individuals and less than 1 percent from publicly traded corporations. Major companies almost unanimously have concluded that they have more to lose than gain by wading into polarizing political campaigns.”

“But what about the rich people?!” The advocates of Amendment 65 explicitly call for the censorship of “the rich”—so apparently the wealthy aren’t people, either.

The problem of money in politics is not much of problem. But the “solution” of censoring political speech is extraordinarily dangerous. Liberty can survive stupid campaign ads. It cannot survive censorship.


Image of Steve Simpson: Institute for Justice

The Secret Big Money Behind Amendment 65

Does it strike anyone but me as ironic that those wanting to “get big money out of politics” are spending big money to promote their political agenda?

Three groups are registered “Issue Committees” to promote Amendment 65, the Colorado ballot measure seeking a U.S. amendment allowing politicians to restrict campaign spending (i.e., censor political speech).

Those groups (and their leaders) are Coloradans For Equal Opportunity (Mary Phillips), Coloradans Get Big Money Out of Politics (Elena Nunez), and Fair Share Committee to Get Big Money Out of Politics (Kirsten Schatz). (There is no group registered against the measure; obviously a few individuals, including me, have spoken against it.)

The first group hasn’t raised much money. The other two groups, however, have raised and spent significant funds. Following are the amounts raised, as reported by the Secretary of State:

Fair Share Committee to Get Big Money Out of Politics

October 1: $175,000 monetary contributions. Interestingly, that entire amount came from the Fair Share Alliance in Washington, DC.

September 17: $2,691 non-monetary contributions. Can you guess the source? Yes, the Fair Share Alliance.

September 4: $41,197.90 non-monetary contributions, all from Fair Share Alliance.

August 1: $365,689.96 non-monetary contributions, mostly from Fair Share Alliance (mostly for signature gathering).

Coloradans Get Big Money Out of Politics

October 15: $930 monetary contributions plus $7,469.60 non-monetary contributions, mostly from Common Cause. (Note that Elena Nunez is the Executive Director of Colorado Common Cause.)

October 1: $5,300 monetary contributions plust $6,799.14 non-monetary contributions, mostly from Common Cause. (A number of individuals made monetary contributions.)

September 17: $4,795.48 non-monetary contributions, mostly from Common Cause.

September 4: $35,371.04 monetary contributions plus $1,002.15 non-monetary contributions. This includes $12,921.04 in monetary contributions from Common Cause and $15,000 from People for the American Way of Washington, DC.

August 1 (amended): $81,881.96 monetary contributions plus $31,867.77 non-monetary contributions, mostly from Common Cause.

July 2: $165 non-monetary contribution from Colorado Common Cause.

* * *

In sum, two main groups, Fair Share Alliance and Common Cause, have dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars—mostly “secret” money funneled from one group to another—into the Amendment 65 campaign to “get big money out of politics.” Interesting tactic, that.


Image of Elena Nunez hosted by Picasa

Top Ten Reasons Why Colorado Amendment 65 Is a Truly Horrible Idea

I just released a short (2:45 minute) video summarizing my case against Amendment 65. The transcript, from which I strayed only slightly, follows. See also my main document on Amendment 65.

Colorado Amendment 65 asks politicians to support “an amendment to the United States Constitution that allows Congress and the states to limit campaign contributions and spending.”

Why is this a truly horrible idea?

1. Amendment 65 would impose censorship, giving government power to forcibly restrict who may speak, how they may speak, or what they may say.

2. Amendment 65 would, for the first time in the nation’s history, repeal a portion of the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law” restricting free speech. Amendment 65 says Congress should make such laws.

3. Amendment 65 threatens to violate people’s right to speak out on political issues, whether alone or as part of a group, such as a corporation or a union.

4. Any censorship law will leave so-called “loopholes,” leading to calls for additional restrictions. The logical and inevitable result is the censorship of documentaries, books, and newspapers, in addition to flyers and television ads.

5. Amendment 65 would give incumbent politicians the power to silence their critics. That is inherently corrupt.

6. Amendment 65 would give powerful interest groups a means to silence their opponents with less political power.

7. Amendment 65 would create bureaucratic hurdles for small groups to speak out, while large groups with tons of money would just hire more attorneys to find the loopholes and comply with the bureaucratic rules.

8. Although it is true that “money isn’t speech,” we must spend resources to publicly advocate our ideas. Censorship by restricting how people may spend resources on speech is still censorship.

9. It is not true that people who spend more “drown out” others’ voices. For example, Pat Stryker, who is worth $1.4 billion, has spend millions on Colorado politics, yet she has not restricted my ability to speak at all. The only party who can restrict my ability to speak is the government censor.

10. You have a brain! We have the ability to think independently about political ads. We don’t need to forcibly restrict them. I’m as annoyed as anyone by these political ads, but the price of free speech is that we have to put up with speech we find annoying or even abhorrent.

For more about why Colorado Amendment 65 is a truly horrible idea, please see my web page at AriArmstrong.com. See particularly “Colorado Amendment 65: An Assault of Free Speech.”

Colorado Amendment 65: An Assault of Free Speech

I regard the Colorado ballot measure Amendment 65 as a threat to freedom of speech. Here I collect my writings, talks, and videos on the matter. See also the information about Amendment 65 at the Secretary of State‘s web page or in the Legislative Council’s “Blue Book.”

On September 30, the Denver Post published my op-ed, “Amendment 65: An Intrusion On Our Right to Free Speech.” Following are some excerpts:

Amendment 65 . . . asks the foxes to guard the hen house. It asks incumbent politicians and their appointed bureaucrats to restrict the very speech that criticizes them. . . .

You have no right of free speech if you cannot spend your resources how you want on speech. With the possible exception of shouting over panhandlers on a street corner, every form of speech requires the expenditure of resources. . . .

Amendment 65 claims that, somehow, censorship will establish “a level playing field” for speech. But small groups are the ones that tend to get ensnared in speech restrictions, while big groups pay legions of attorneys to guide them through the inevitable loopholes. . . .

It is the government’s proper job to protect each individual’s right to speak freely, whether alone or as part of a group, not to forcibly silence some voices so that others face less competition.

On September 27, I spoke briefly at a forum in Wheat Ridge:

On October 2, I joined Amy Oliver on 1310 am to discuss Amendment 65. The complete audio file is available. One of the points I make is that, based on the premise that money corrupts politics, the last thing we should want to do is put corrupt politicians in charge of censoring speech.

Also on October 2, Mike Rosen spent his first hour discussing Amendment 65. He mentioned my Denver Post op-ed but spent most of his time discussing why the measure has no legal force.

Dave Kopel and Ken Gordon debated Amendment 65 on September 19; their hour-long discussion is well worth listening to.

I debated Gordon October 4 at an event hosted by AFGE 3607 Union. (My presentation begins at minute 16:56.) One lady asked about my views of mandatory disclosure. I answered her in brief following the formal presentation; you may read my more complete statement in an op-ed I wrote for the Colorado Springs Gazette last year. Here is the entire 44 minute debate:

October 6: Although overall I was pleased with my case when debating Ken Gordon, I decided that, on one point, I needed to further clarify my position. So I wrote an article for The Objective Standard blog, “When Politics Corrupts Money.” Here is an excerpt:

In hindsight, I should not have conceded, as I did, that “money corrupts politics” in some cases. True, some interest groups spend money on campaigns in the hope of receiving special government privileges, such as corporate welfare subsidies or coercive “protections” against their competitors. However, to concede that “money corrupts politics” wrongly implies that the modern political system is pure and noble until it is corrupted by money.

The proper way to describe the problem is that, within modern government, politics corrupts money.

Read the entire piece.

October 7: The Denver Post published three letters, two critical of me. Neither of those letters is remotely responsive to the arguments I made in my Post op-ed. Near the end of the first hour of his radio show on October 8, Mike Rosen discussed these letters and reiterated his reasons for opposing Amendment 65. Also, on October 11 the Post ran Rosen’s column criticizing the measure as “absurd and ineffectual.”

October 10: The Colorado Social Legislation Committee and the League of Women Voters of Colorado hosted a Denver forum on state ballot issues. As part of this forum, Elena Nunez of Colorado Common Cause and I debated Amendment 65:

October 11: I might mention a couple other Denver Post op-eds that support Amendment 65, one by Stephen Justino and another by Elena Nunez and Danny Katz, the primary sponsors of the measure. They do not raise any arguments that I do not address in my talks and articles. Luis Torro writes a tangentially related article in which he asks why the government should not impose “a consumer protection law for campaign ads.” The basic answer is three-fold. First, there are many ways to combat campaign deception, such as the newspaper article Torro cites. Second, libel law already does (or should) provide the legal remedy for egregious lies. Third, and perhaps most important, putting politicians and bureaucrats in charge of deciding which speech about politicians and bureaucrats is “truthful” is incredibly dangerous and inherently prone to abuse.

October 12: I had jotted down the link to Shawn Mitchell’s excellent article of a few weeks ago, “Progressive War on Speech and Liberty Continues.”

October 15: The October 12 edition of Westsider features a column by Andrea Doray, who contrasts free speech in America with oppression in various other nations. She writes:

When I tire of hearing the ads, especially the negative ones, I try to remind myself that free speech and freedom of the press make this knowledge available to me, and that I am able to make my own decisions and vote for the candidate of my eventual choice.

On October 13 I had the opportunity to debate Danny Katz of COPirg, one of the sponsors of Amendment 65, in front of the Jefferson County Democrats. I’m not sure the audio turned out well enough for me to release the video; but, anyway, I didn’t really cover any issue I haven’t covered elsewhere.

On October 14 I wrote an article for The Objective Standard, “Why Forcibly Limiting Campaign Spending is Censorship—And Why it Matters.” I focus on the expansive nature of the censorship laws in question.

I released a short video (2:45 minutes) summarizing my case against Amendment 65, “Top Ten Reasons Why Colorado Amendment 65 Is a Truly Horrible Idea.”

October 16: Watch Dave Kopel debate Elena Nunez. Kopel argues: “The fundamental point is that the First Amendment protects the right of everyone to freedom of speech. Whenever the government gets in the business of limiting freedom of speech, it will be to the benefit of the incumbent politicians.”

October 18: Today The Objective Standard published my article, “The Egalitarian Assault on Free Speech.” I explain why the left’s egalitarianism in the realm of economics has led it to advocate censorship in the realm of political speech.

Also, my debate with Ken Gordon about money in politics and Amendment 65 is now online:

October 21: This is a secondary issue, but I do think it’s an interesting detail that two main groups, the Fair Share Alliance and Common Cause, have dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into their campaign to “get big money out of politics.” See my write-up.

October 31: The Denver Post‘s Vincent Carroll offers an excellent critique of Amendment 65, pointing out it could also lead to restricting how much money individuals may spend on their own races. He writes, “Amendment 65 is a quixotic attempt to take politics out of politics by trampling on our freedom.”

November 1: In preparation for discussing campaign finance with a University of Denver class taught by Andrew Romanoff, I prepared some notes. Also, the New York Times has compiled the basic statistics about spending on the presidential race this year. Honestly I was surprised to find that the overwhelming amount of spending came from the campaigns themselves, while PACs played a relatively small role.

Also, I thought Dave Kopel aptly summarized the nature of Amendment 65 for a Collegian article: “Amendment 65 is a blank check for government censorship of political speech.”

November 2: Please watch this excellent video from Learn Liberty on campaign spending restrictions:

Image: Ari Armstrong, Hosted by Picasa

Am. 65 Versus Free Speech

Yes, free speech can sometimes be annoying, but the only alternative to free speech is censorship, letting politicians and bureaucrats decide who may speak, how they may speak, and what they may say.

Colorado’s Amendment 65 calls for political control of campaign speech. Last night I delivered a short talk against it at the Wheat Ridge United Neighborhoods Election Preview Forum.

Gessler Announces Reasonable Campaign Rule Changes

Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler has done to best he can to make the rules surrounding the state’s campaign-finance laws more comprehensible and less oppressive. For daring to stand up for the free-speech rights of Coloradans to the degree his office permits, Gessler has earned the scorn of the pro-censorship left.

Contrary to the complaints of some of Gessler’s critics, Gessler is required by the Colorado Constitution to “promulgate such rules… as may be necessary to administer and enforce any provision of” the campaign finance laws (see Article XXVIII, Section 9(1)(b)).

Given that federal courts have struck down some aspects of those laws, Gessler must therefore promulgate rules that take the relevant court decisions into account.

As the Denver Post reports, yesterday Gessler implemented rules based on those considered at a December 15 hearing.

I attended that hearing, and I spoke out in favor of Gessler’s proposed rules. (I also harshly condemned the campaign laws as a violation of free speech, though obviously that broader issue lies outside of Gessler’s administrative capacities.)

Today I release another video of that hearing in which three people—Allen Dickerson, Regina Thompson, and Natelie Menten—also voice their concerns about the campaign-finance laws but (at least mostly) support Gessler’s efforts to clarify the rules and make them as unburdensome as possible. (Some of the meaning of their comments is fully clear only in light of the particular laws and rule changes under consideration at the hearing.) For more details about the campaign finance laws and about the rules Gessler helped to rewrite, please see the links below.

See also:

Campaign Finance Rules: Collected Testimony

Braunlich: CO Campaign Laws Chill Speech of New Activists, Small Groups

Gessler Emerges as the Free Speech Secretary of State

SOS Looks to Mitigate Burden of Campaign Censorship Laws

Braunlich: CO Campaign Laws Chill Speech of New Activists, Small Groups

Last month Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler hosted a hearing about proposed rules for Colorado’s byzantine campaign finance laws. I supported (most of) his proposed rule changes, even while condemning the campaign laws as a violation of free speech. Please see the videos of testimony by Diana Hsieh, Paul Hsieh, Matt Arnold, and me.

I’ve decided that the issue is important enough to merit the release of additional video from that event. Here Mark Braunlich argues that the campaign laws chill the speech of new activists and small groups. He did praise Gessler for trying to make the related rules as comprehensible as possible.

Common Cause Joins Pro-Censorship Rally

The bigotry follows a common pattern: dehumanize your opponents, then strip them of their rights.

Tomorrow, various leftist organizations will rally in Denver to advocate censorship to forcibly silence select individuals, on the pretext that “corporations aren’t people.” And never mind the fact that corporations are composed of people, as are all groups.

In the good ol’ days, the left would denounce economic liberty but defend freedom of speech. Today the left’s inner contradictions have led it to endorse censorship outright (though many leftists are too cowardly to openly name their goal).

Colorado Common Cause has openly endorsed the pro-censorship rally and will participate in it. Yesterday the organization Tweeted, “#SCOTUS got it wrong, only people are people. Join @Amend2012 to take back your democracy: twibbon.com/amend2012.”

The link Tweeted by Common Cause takes us to a web page for “Amend 2012,” which states: “Corporations Are Not People. In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC gave corporations the same constitutional rights as everyday Americans, and said corporations could use their massive riches as free speech. Corporations have been doing just that, pouring money into our elections and drowning out the voices of real people.”

Of course, Common Cause is itself a corporation, as Colorado recordsshow. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, Common Cause showed revenues of $6,318,706.

So does Common Cause think it should be censored, on the grounds that it is a corporation that “pours money” into the political process? Of course not. Because, you see, some corporations are more equal than others. The members of some groups are more equal than others. The members of some groups are “real people,” who therefore retain their First Amendment rights, while the members of others groups are apparently subhumans, undeserving of the same legal protections. That is precisely the logic of Colorado Common Cause’s position.

Ironically, Colorado Common Cause and others are simultaneously advocating free speech by opposing the SOPA internet restriction bill, and advocating censorship of corporate speech. For example, in a Tweet today Common Cause promoted a “Musical Attack on #SOPA & #CitizensUnited.” See also the linked video.

And yet the voices against SOPA included many of America’s most prominent corporations. Wikipedia led the charge — you know, the free online encyclopedia owned by Wikimedia Foundation, Incorporated. The for-profit corporations Facebook and Google also came out strongly against SOPA. Even the Vibram shoe company came out against SOPA.

Does the American left really want to get in the businesses of imposing government censorship on corporations? As Eugene Volokh sensibly reasons: “Say that Congress concludes that it’s unfair for Google to be able to speak so broadly, in a way that ordinary Americans (including ordinary Congressmen) generally can’t. Congress therefore enacts a statute banning all corporations from spending their money — and therefore banning them from speaking — in support of or opposition to any statute. What would you say about such a statute?”

If censorship is “what democracy looks like,” then I for one will fight for the preservation of the First Amendment and our Constitutional republic.

Image: Picasa via Wikipedia

Read also: Citizens United and the Battle for Free Speech in America, by Steve Simpson

Campaign Finance Rules: Collected Testimony

As I’ve reviewed, Colorado’s Secretary of State Scott Gessler held a meeting December 15 to discuss his office’s rules pertaining to the campaign finance laws.

Gessler’s office has published all the written testimony submitted on the matter.

I’ve also published video of several people who, while overall supportive of Gessler’s proposed rule changes, nevertheless criticize the broader scope of campaign finance controls. Following are the remarks of Diana Hsieh, Paul Hsieh, Matt Arnold, and me.

If you want to get an idea of why I was a bit fired up, check out this video clip of State Senator John Morse: