Quote of the Day: An Unusual Take on Campaign-Finance Laws

By David A. Graham

Billionaire Republican Ken Griffin praises Rahm Emanuel and the EPA and says that success ought to give the wealthy a louder voice in politics.

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Over the weekend, the Chicago Tribune ran an extended interview with Ken Griffin, the billionaire investor and CEO of Citadel LLC. Griffin's an unusual brand of politician: In the interview, the major Mitt Romney donor praises Rahm Emanuel, the Koch Brothers, and the Environmental Protection Agency (really!).

The whole thing is worth reading, but the most topical passage is about campaign-finance laws. Early in the interview, as Griffin bashes the Illinois state government for tax breaks for corporations, the Tribune's Melissa Harris points out that lawmakers are giving the breaks out to companies that ask -- and, presumably, give money. Here's Griffin's answer:

Shame on the politicians for listening. And my contemporaries who are willing to grovel for this money ultimately do owe a duty to their shareholders. And if they can convince the state to write them a nine-figure check, as morally corrupt as it is for me to imagine asking for that check, it is profoundly more corrupt for the state to pay it.

Sounds sort of like Lawrence Lessig, the crusading Harvard professor whom my colleague Conor Friedersdorf interviewed last week and who argues that the system itself is corrupt, right? But then read this exchange:

Q. Do you think the ultrawealthy have an inordinate or inappropriate amount of influence on the political process?

A. I think they actually have an insufficient influence. Those who have enjoyed the benefits of our system more than ever now owe a duty to protect the system that has created the greatest nation on this planet. And so I hope that other individuals who have really enjoyed growing up in a country that believes in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - and economic freedom is part of the pursuit of happiness - (I hope they realize) they have a duty now to step up and protect that. Not for themselves, but for their kids and for their grandchildren and for the person down the street that they don't even know ...

This is a unusual argument. Defenses of campaign spending tend to take the form of a liberty argument (money, in this context, equals political speech, so it's unconstitutional to limit how people spend their money) or occasionally a look-at-the-other-guys retort (it's not just billionaires! Look at how much big labor spends!). But Griffin's argument is that success -- at least monetary success -- ought to translate into a more powerful voice in the political conversation that the average voter has.

Image: Citadel

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/03/quote-of-the-day-an-unusual-take-on-campaign-finance-laws/254345/