Should Oxfam, a charity, advocate tougher tax rules for multinational companies? Should local authorities fund campaigns for minimum pricing of alcohol? Or non-government organisations, partly financed by public funds, campaign against welfare cuts?
Such questions have gained salience. The Charity Commission, the regulator for England and Wales, has spoken out on the distinction between charitable and political activity. New rules on election expenses mean many third-party campaign expenditures are subject to spending limits imposed by the UK’s Electoral Commission.
According to Greenpeace, an environmental campaign group, this might even include the cost of ropes and ladders that activists used to climb London’s Shard tower in protest at Arctic oil drilling. The Westminster government has decided to insert in state contracts a provision prohibiting its money being used to promote or influence legislation.
So should record companies fund lobbyists in London and Brussels to extend the length of their copyright? What about a state-controlled bank lobbying against limits on bonuses? Should EU institutions engage in the UK’s referendum debate? Most people think money should be spent lobbying for causes they favour but not those they dislike. Recent attempts to limit political activity have a clear political motive. Much of the credit, or blame, for the new restrictions lies at the door of Christopher Snowdon, who has written on the subject for the right-of-centre — and charitable — Institute of Economic Affairs.
But the question ought to be one of general principle rather than petty partisanship. Mr Snowdon cites Thomas Jefferson, who wrote: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” Jefferson seems to make a fair point. Taxpayers should not subsidise political campaigns. And charities acquire privileges because they engage in activities, such as the relief of poverty, that all agree are for the public good. Lobbying can serve a purpose but only when there is no agreement on what constitutes the public good.
Yet it can cover a spectrum of activity — helping the poor, understanding the causes of poverty, promoting measures to relieve poverty — and it is not clear where to draw a line or whether there is a line to be drawn. There is another spectrum, from making people aware of what government is doing to promoting the interests of the political party in government. While there does seem a line to be drawn here, it is hard to judge where, although I sense it is a line that is increasingly crossed.
One need only look across the Atlantic to see that corruption of the political system by funding from rich individuals and powerful corporations is a more serious problem than charities protesting against government cuts. Not only has this led to bad policy; it threatens the stability of democracy as the people and corporations behind it lose control of the populism they have unleashed.
The work of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which I helped to establish, shows that analysis can be non-partisan and directly relevant to policy. Bodies such as the Bank of England or the Royal Society, comprising eminent scientists, similarly enhance our democracy by being independent of government while wholly or partly funded by it.
We need to hear more from these institutions and less from Greenpeace and Donald Trump. The quality of political debate is more important than the misuse of small amounts of state or charitable funding; and the expression of unconsidered opinions, or views that people have been paid to hold, are much greater threats to democracy and free speech. A mature democracy should fund, and will thrive on, a diversity of thoughtful and sincerely argued views. On reflection, Jefferson was wrong.
This article was first published in the Financial Times on March 30th, 2016.