Disclosing Donors

Radley Balko responds to my post about Mother Jones’s broadcasts of private Koch donor meetings, taking issue with my annoyance that the Kochs try to keep donor information secret in the first place.

I can think of lots of reasons why someone wouldn’t want their donations to political causes to be made public. For example, there’s a bi-partisan history in this country of using the IRS to target the political opponents of the party in the White House. I could also see a business executive not necessarily wanting a regulatory agency to know that he’s donating money to groups that would like to dismantle or diminish that agency’s power.

I suppose those two examples aren’t going to win much sympathy from Koch critics. So let me offer a couple more: I could also see why a progressive-minded businessman in, say, Salt Lake City, would want to keep secret his donation to a group advocating for gay marriage in California. Or why the trust fund kid of a Raytheon executive may not want his family to know he gives to anti-war organizations.

Balko points out, correctly, that Mother Jones doesn’t disclose all of its donors; the heavy breathing about Koch is hypocritical! But to mangle an idea from Ayn Rand, A does not equal A. If I’m the scion of an oil fortune, and I donate to groups that write briefing papers or campaign ads that will lead to new drilling licenses or estate tax cuts, I’m maximizing my political speech for a cause that will – among other things – maybe lead to some redistributive financial gain for myself. If I’m the same person, but I donate to an organization that lobbies or messages for stricter pollution standards, or higher taxes, I’m not donating for eventual personal gain. Now, if I own a shambling solar company, and I donate to that same organization, am I looking for something down the line? Yes. This is case-by-case stuff.

On substance, I think we just have a fundamental disagreement about disclosure. Maybe naively, I think that money equals speech, and that we treat political and think tank and charitable donations differently because we see them as speech, with some sort of public benefit. As it’s put in Buckley v. Valeo:

[V]irtually every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society requires the expenditure of money. The distribution of the humblest handbill or leaflet entails printing, paper, and circulation costs. Speeches and rallies generally necessitate hiring a hall and publicizing the event. The electorate’s increasing dependence on television, radio, and other mass media for news and information has made these expensive modes of communication indispensable instruments of effective political speech.

For that reason, I don’t think people who donate to political causes should be any less anonymous than, say, people who write blogs or tweets aimed at advancing their political causes. Finger-wagging about it and hiding it – I don’t like either, which is why my posts about the War on Koch can be so arch.