This article re-examines the distinction between the libertarian approach and the egalitarian approach to the regulation of campaign finance. The conventional approach (as exemplified by the work of Owen Fiss and Ronald Dworkin) is to reconcile the competing values of liberty and equality. By contrast, this article advances the normative claim that democracies should seek to incorporate both the libertarian and the egalitarian approaches within constitutional law. I argue that instead of emphasizing one value over the other, the ideal position is one that simultaneously recognizes the values of liberty and equality despite the irreconcilable tension between them. Rather than choosing one value over the other, or reconciling these values by redefining them, I claim that it is vital to maintain the tension between liberty and equality by instantiating the conflict in law. Democracy is better served when the law contains an explicit tension between these foundational values.
After setting forth this normative framework, I then apply it to the campaign finance decisions of the Supreme Courts of the United States and Canada, respectively. I make two main claims. First, I argue that although the libertarian/egalitarian distinction is usually presented as a binary choice, the laws of a given jurisdiction often simultaneously display both libertarian and egalitarian characteristics. For this reason, I claim that the libertarian/egalitarian distinction is better conceived of as a “libertarian-egalitarian spectrum.” Second, I argue that in recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of Canada, respectively, have privileged one value—liberty or equality—at the expense of the other. The U.S. Supreme Court has over-emphasized the value of liberty (most notably in its Citizens United decision), with the result that political equality is markedly undermined. By the same token, the Supreme Court of Canada’s commitment to equality has become too one-sided in recent cases (Harper and Bryan), with the result that there are significant impairments to free speech liberties. I argue that both of these approaches are detrimental to democratic participation and governance. Finally, this article offers a preliminary proposal for how courts and legislatures can allow for the conflict between liberty and equality to be instantiated in law.