Citizens United and the Fall of the Roman Republic

In a recent Slate article, Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni claim that the history of the fall of the Roman Republic strengthens the case against the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which ruled that the First Amendment protects corporate and union political speech against restriction by government. The influence of money in politics, they claim, was what brought down the Republic. Dubious analogies between the modern US and ancient Rome are all too common. This one has two serious flaws: the problematic use of money in ancient Roman elections involved outright bribery and corruption rather than merely spending on speech; and even that wasn’t really what caused the republic to collapse.

As Goodman and Soni recognize, the financial corruption that plagued ancient Rome was not spending on campaign speech, but flagrant bribery of voters and public officials:

Ancient politicians were just as skilled as modern ones at identifying and exploiting loopholes in election law. In Rome, the key loophole lay in the fuzzy distinction between ambitus (electoral bribery) and mere benignitas (generosity). Roman elections were often won on the strength of free food, drinks, entertainment, and sometimes hard cash offered directly to voters and financed by private fortunes. In fact, Roman campaign slogans were sometimes inscribed on the bottom of commemorative wine cups—you could drain the cup and find out whom to vote for. Most of the Roman elite relied on the gentleman’s agreement that the line between bribery and generosity would not be strictly patrolled. At worst, rank vote-buying was something your opponents engaged in; you, on the other hand, were simply being a good neighbor….

Politicians able to afford the massive bribes were usually able to afford protection after the fact. Worse, with no enforceable limits on spending and a heavy premium on one-upsmanship, the price of elections skyrocketed. Five years before the republic collapsed, Cicero made an astonishing claim: The wealthy had injected so much cash into election season that the interest rate in Rome temporarily doubled.

Nor could the power of money be confined to election season—its influence spread throughout the republic’s government. Rome had long sent politicians to govern a province after their year in office; ultimately, they felt entitled to fleece those provinces in order to recoup their election losses, a practice that spread deep resentment of the capital. The biographer Plutarch records bribery of civil servants, who were paid off to erase debts owed to the public purse. Jury verdicts, too, were regularly bought and paid for.

The problem with electoral bribery is that bribed voters vote for whoever pays them off rather than based on their perception of the public good. By contrast, political speech – whether financed by corporations and unions or not – is only effective if it persuades the public. And, Mitt Romney’s notorious comments notwithstanding, the overwhelming evidence is that voters generally do not form their political opinions on the basis of narrow material self-interest. The problem with modern voters is not that they are selfish, but that they are often ignorant and irrational. That problem cannot be solved by restricting corporate and union-funded political speech. Obviously, corporate and union-funded speech sometimes seeks to exploit political ignorance. But the same is true of speech funded by the media, political parties, activist groups, and others. In a political environment where the electorate is often ignorant, whoever is allowed to engage in electoral speech has a strong incentive to take advantage of that ignorance.

Second, while electoral bribery was a real problem in ancient Rome, it was not the cause of the Republic’s downfall. Rather, as I discussed here, the standard explanation for that collapse is that, as the Romans built a vast empire that encompassed most of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, the government in Rome lost control of its far-flung military forces, which were often more loyal to their generals than to the state. As a result, ambitious generals such as Marius, Sulla, and, finally, Caesar were able to march on Rome and take over the government. To the extent that money was important here, it was not electoral spending but the generals’ ability to cement their troops’ loyalty by rewarding them with plunder, increased pay, and free land – often at public expense.

Goodman and Soni conclude that the real problem in both ancient Rome and modern America is the perception of corruption that undermines the legitimacy of the government, which they imply is in large part caused by Citizens United. But decline in public trust in government long predates Citizens United, and was not even significantly accelerated by it. Moreover, if the government should have the power to suppress speech that creates a perception of corruption, that rationale would justify going far beyond censoring corporate or union-funded campaign speech. It would also justify suppressing speech by groups like Occupy Wall Street, which claim that the political system is rigged to benefit “the 1 percent” at the expense of “the 99 percent.” Speech by politicians, activists, and members of the media who directly claim that the system is corrupt surely contributes to the appearance of corruption at least as much as speech funded by corporations and unions, which often focuses on other issues.

Various arguments can be made against Citizens United, and against the alleged corruption of modern politics more generally. But strained analogies to ancient Rome add little to the debate over these issues.