Campaign finance reform and the role of money in politics is the most dominant arena of the free speech debate in the 21st century. On one end of the spectrum is those who are in favor of unlimited campaign contributions and on the other is those who want strict limits on the amount and kind of donations. Arguments against regulation often relate to a constitutional right to free speech and a related benefit to an open political process. A popular argument in favor of more stringent regulations is that those with vast fortunes can “crowd out” the political speech of others. If convincing, this line of reasoning represents a critical blow to the other side as they can represent regulation as a tool that actually aids the realization of free speech. Some propose that the extent that speech is chilled by the presence of big money in politics has changed over time. A few major news and radio publications have given way to a nearly limitless and universally accessible platform of information dissemination: the internet. This essay will begin by further explaining the “crowding out” argument, argue that the emergence of the internet eases these concerns, and respond to a prominent criticism related to the limited nature of human cognitive capacity.
Crowding out can effectively be viewed as the loss of opportunity to hear or consider views due to unequal financial resources. Crowding out can be experienced across two separate vectors: the loss of opportunity in exposure to different ideas and the loss of opportunity in consideration of different ideas. The first category can be best displayed in situations where the total amount of possible speech is limited. For example, consider a town hall debate. If the organizers of the debate auctioned off 15 minute chunks of speaking time to the highest bidder, each interval bought by candidate A directly means one less interval of speaking time for candidate B. This situation is fundamentally different from one where campaign funds simply increase exposure to one view without necessarily eliminating the same opportunity for other views.
The second vector of crowding out has to do with an individual’s limited capacity to grasp a multitude of ideas and consider them simultaneously. In many respects, this question of mental capacity is an empirical one but to build some intuition consider the following example. Imagine a memory test where a series of objects are shown to a subject and after five minutes they try to recite as many of the objects as possible. It seems quite plausible that above some threshold, increasing the amount of objects shown to them has no positive effect on the amount of objects they will be able to recite. With this limitation in mind, consider a message backed by lots of money that is expressed repeatedly and propagated through many different channels. This message grabs the attention of an individual and takes up some amount of their capacity to hold ideas. The fact that this capacity is limited makes political advertisements a zero-sum game, as consideration of one idea necessarily means less room or opportunity for other ideas. Well funded political messages can crowd out poorly funded ones in the mental capacity of voters. If there is the presumption that money should be treated as speech in the realm of campaign finance, then there needs to be a compelling reason to curb campaign contributions. The “crowding out” effect through loss of opportunity to hear and consider ideas draws a connection between this sort of spending and the infringement of other people’s political speech. This might represent a compelling reason for campaign finance regulation..
Ultimately, the internet has decreased the influence of avenues of crowding out. The rise of the internet provides nearly infinite platforms to spread ideas, eliminating the limited opportunity for expression necessary for crowding out. Not only are there more publications to advertise on, many of these platforms have tools that allow for cheaper more targeted advertising. This development results in two changes. The first is that with more avenues to express one’s message the inherent risk of crowding out is reduced. As I mentioned in my explanation of the crowding out effect, it is displayed most clearly in a setting with limited opportunities to speak. Consequently, crowding out is least problematic the more abundant these opportunities are. The more space there is online, the less likely it is for the presence of one idea to infringe on another idea, as they can occupy two distinct spheres. Second, the granular targeting of ads to certain demographics, opens up more opportunities for less well funded ideas. In a time with only traditional media platforms, if one was unable to purchase an advertisement on one of these platforms, one had no recourse. These ads were comparatively expensive, because traditional media only had a limited amount of ad spaces, and any ad was displayed to the entire audience. Due to the nature of advertising on social media, there are more opportunities for ads to be shown, driving down costs, and the ability to show ads only to certain people lowers costs further. This lower cost to access is an important angle to the crowding out argument as simply increasing potential avenues for speech is not enough. If all these new avenues for speech technically exist but are too expensive to access that does little to alleviate crowding out for poorly funded ideas. The rise of the internet and social media platforms alleviates both concerns by creating more spaces for the distribution of messages while also lowering the cost of access to these spaces.
Critics will point to the fact that crowding out is still a relevant issue in modern day America through its second vector of cognitive capacity. The emergence of the internet does nothing to change the fact that people have limited mental space to hold and consider ideas. The internet may allow for huge amounts of information and different opinions to be relayed to an individual, but the limited nature of human mental resources makes the infinite nature of the internet irrelevant.
The response to this argument involves taking a closer look at the nature of human memory and the procedure through which people choose to store certain types of information. We are assuming that people’s mental capacity to hold ideas is limited so let’s examine the case where it is “full.” To return to the example of the memory test, say the subject has been shown 10 objects which they all remember; however, that is the limit of their memory. If they are shown an additional 11th object, which 10 objects do they store in their mind? Opposed to simply rejecting the 11th object because they were at mental capacity, it is likely that they remember the 11th object and forget about one of the original 10 that they found most insignificant. To abstract this example to the case of national political advertising, it is not as if pervasive big money messaging takes up mental space in an individual and then is cemented in their minds forever. Perhaps memory operates more like a carousel, where incoming ideas replace old ones. This procedure of replacement is simply related to how impactful or significant each idea is. The battle for space inside an individual’s mind is pretty similar to a battle of ideas on their merits. If an argument is particularly moving to the individual then that will occupy space in their memory. Frivolous unsubstantiated ones would be forgotten.The battle for memory could simply be a version of the free flowing debate desired from open political discussion. Even if human memory is limited, it constantly changes to adopt new ideas. This revolving nature of cognitive capacity works against the crowding out effect as the space that a certain idea takes up is always up for grabs when another idea is heard.
While historically, crowding out might have been a powerful argument for the regulation of political donations, the ubiquitousness of the internet works against many of the concerns that well funded messages take up limited space from less well endowed ideas. The existence of a multitude of media platforms creates many low cost opportunities for advertisements, representing a nearly unlimited space for thoughts to be expressed. Critics may argue that crowding out can also exist with regards to the mental capacity of individuals. The internet might allow for many different messages to reach people, but they are still only absorbing a limited amount of that information. However, even if memory is limited, it is not static. As new ideas are heard their persuasiveness or rationality plays a role in their significance to the individual. These new ideas, if sufficiently memorable, could replace the previously stored old ideas. With ideas always being able to be replaced, the fact that the internet exposes people to a variety of ideas, both well and poorly funded, is enough to say the internet alleviates many of crowding out’s most pressing concerns.