If a parallel-universe Alexis de Tocqueville were to write a bizarro version of the Frenchman’s magnum opus today—say, How to Ruin Democracy in America—he’d have to give the Citizens United ruling a prominent role in his narrative. The circumvented balance of power, the capture of public policy by special interests, the sheer volume of money warping policy: These anti-democratic effects are well-trod ground, justifiably so. Transferring so much power to what can only be called an oligarchy subverts the most deeply held tenets of democracy.
Still, even these melancholy musings may not capture the most serious derangement wrought by this open Pandora’s Box. Even more disturbing than the ruling’s concentration of power in corporate and special interests is the positive feedback loop it creates. The least scrupulous and most willing to subvert public-private firewalls to reap the benefits of crony capitalism will benefit the most from transfers of public wealth, which they can then leverage to accumulate still further power.
Unlike their inherently self-regulating negative cousins, positive feedback loops are not so easily tamed. In the popular consciousness, the most familiar example is probably Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional “ice-nine” in Cat’s Cradle: a variant of ice with altered melting point, prompting it to progressively convert garden-variety ice into the altered form, eventually freezing the oceans. Nevertheless, the ice-nine phenomenon is not confined merely to the fervent imaginings of decorated novelists. An unsettling real-world example is the curious case of Mad Cow disease and CJD, its human equivalent; both represent devastating neurological conditions ensuing from the autocatalytic effect of a so-called prion, a non-functional “evil twin” of a normal brain protein. When the evil twin interfaces with the healthy form, it serially begets more of itself, further accelerating the noxious conversion, and on and on.
The ice-nine phenomenon has equally hideous manifestations in the context of macroscopic social, economic, and political spheres. The common feature is a perverse incentive, conferring a potent short-term selective pressure toward behavior that is long-term disastrous; the toxic stimulus thus serially begets and empowers itself. The dreadful race-to-the-bottom scenario in classical economics is Exhibit A: Repugnant workplace practices (abusive child labor, unsafe worksites, environmental contamination, indentured servitude, even outright slavery) nonetheless confer a competitive short-term cost advantage for outfits that allow them, pressuring other enterprises toward the same regressive practices. As with the evil-twin protein in Mad Cow disease, the disastrous chain reaction is autocatalytic: It takes only a few rotten apples at the outset to seed catastrophe, spoiling the entire barrel.
That’s what Citizens United has engendered: a “political ice-nine” phenomenon in which power and wealth progressively accrue to the sociopathic interests most detrimental to society. Even if only five percent of firms were to use their (now unrestricted) contributions to sway policy and secure no-bid contracts, tax breaks, and diminishing regulations, that less-than-upright subset now becomes “selected for” in the new scramble for power, as do the politicians unscrupulous enough to go along with the corruption. As the spoils accrue to the least principled in one cycle, they gain leverage to extract still more spoils in the next cycle, and onward and onward. Dirty profits, grabbed from the public purse, thus serially beget themselves in a spreading and self-amplifying disaster.
It takes little imagination to appreciate the calamitous logical endpoint of this process. The Treasury, already in a precarious state, would be looted—as presaged by attempts to acquire public utilities on the cheap in Wisconsin, noted recently by Paul Krugman. In disempowering the majority of those firms and policy-makers who accept the necessary distance between private sector and public watchdog, the Court has all but hung up an “all-you-can-plunder” sign before the now-open safe housing the country’s publicly-held assets.
More subtle but just as dangerous, Citizens United would provoke such a patent misallocation of tax dollars as to cripple the public trust and unity on which any nation depends. Many high-tax, low-corruption societies—notably Germany and the Scandinavian and Benelux countries—nonetheless enjoy robust capitalistic economies and high public trust, since their citizens can plainly see the wealth-generating, added-value investments (infrastructure, education, basic science research, the arts, etc.) to which public funds are applied. In stark contrast, if the U.S. public witnesses its hard-earned tax dollars skimmed off from the cronyism facilitated by Citizens United, it will be well-nigh impossible for the citizenry to come together for the shared sacrifice needed as we shift to a more mature, low-resource economy dependent on human capital.
The political ice-nine effect means that the consequences of Citizens United are even more atrocious than you’ve probably heard already—not just an aggressive plutocracy (as brilliantly rendered by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson in Winner-Take-All Politics), but a full-on fiscal train wreck, Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine on North American speed. This is the twenty-first-century realization of Plato’s ancient warnings about the fragility of democracy, and Hegel’s eerie observation that history occasionally lurches from its staid, gradualistic path into wild and sudden breakdowns of an existing order (aka “total system failure”). The near unanimity of opposition to Citizens United in every poll, across party lines, shows that the American people are onto this, too. But the decision needs to be countered at once, because it becomes far more difficult to change the longer its effects accumulate. Barring unexpected retirements in the near term, the most immediate hope is that the current Court itself might see its error; its decisions have been fairly reasonable in many other domains (nothing like the ideological rigidity of the Taney Court), so perhaps its members will revisit their decision. If not, then we already have the framework for the Twenty-Eighth Amendment.
J. Wes Ulm wrote “Cachet of the Cutthroat” in our Spring 2010 issue.
Photo credit: deltaMike