You’re Rich, Now Shut Up

The Supreme Court just heard arguments concerning campaign contribution limits. At issue is the aggregate total that an individual may contribute to several candidates within a certain time period. Fortunately, questions from some Justices indicate that they may be ready to jettison this insult to free speech.

Most arguments about free speech since I have been aware of politics have centered on non-political speech. For example, commercial speech has (wrongly, I believe) long been considered a different category of speech, distinct from advocating for candidates or public policy. Though the Court has in many cases protected free speech even in cases involving economic transactions, there has remained a curious norm–that speech is only speech in certain contexts. Commercial speech does not count.

The other category of non-political speech is obscenity, which has a long and colorful history. Sexually-oriented material has variously been seen as harmful to adults and thus in the state’s interest to control, harmful to children, subject to zoning laws, etc. Again, except for the case of access by children,* I find the state’s interest in controlling access to any material dubious.

No matter what one’s opinion on the state’s interest in these two kinds of speech, though, one kind has always been considered a mainstay of our system of government–political speech. The Founders recognized that in order for a people to live in freedom, each person must have the right to speak his/her mind freely. Tyranny springs from a leader’s assurance that his/her actions cannot be criticized. This has not kept self-appointed monitors of propriety from trying to limit political speech. Campaign finance laws, for example, are based on the concern that money “corrupts” politics.

megaphone girl

Curiously, these laws assume that advocacy for public policies coming from the well-to-do are less worthy that those coming from the middle-class or the poor. Note the following exchange:

“By having these limits, you are promoting democratic participation,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. “Then the little people will count some and you won’t have the super-affluent as the speakers that will control the elections.”

Justice Antonin Scalia responded, sarcastically, that he assumed “a law that only prohibits the speech of 2 percent of the country is O.K.”

Bingo.

Amazingly, some people are perfectly comfortable with the idea of limiting a particular point of view by limiting the political speech of the wealthy. Presumably, having people advocate for less governmental interference in economic activity is intrinsically bad.** Should this point of view appeal to you, try this one on. Arguably, the single biggest threat to the United States is an avalanche of entitlement obligations set to hit us within a few years. Might we not with equal plausibility argue that poor people should have their speech limited? After all, are they not more likely to advocate for economic policies that accelerate our demise? That reach into the pockets of honest, hard-working citizens?

“But they don’t have the money to do that!” one can imagine liberals protesting angrily. No, but there are lots more of them. Collectively, they can be every bit as much of a menace as the Koch brothers are purported to be. Speaking of liberals, why don’t we limit their speech? The same arguments apply.

Yes, money is influential in politics. No one argues otherwise. It is influential to the degree it is because as a nation we have come to tolerate the symbiotically corrupt collusion of business and government. We have also come to tolerate the whines of the shiftless as equivalent to the cries of the helpless. Money is not the issue–we are the issue.

Anyone who knows the sources of a politician’s overflowing campaign coffers and does not figure it into his/her vote is lazy, stupid, or both. A person who is genuinely concerned with “corruption” in the system should spend some time and energy educating people about the political process and how to make informed choices rather than attempting to silence views with which they disagree.

Only one rule need apply to campaign contributions, period. Disclosure. Let anyone raise as much money as he/she wishes and disclose within 48 hours the contributor and the amount. With the information available on the Internet, anyone can find a way to learn what organizations and what individuals fund which politicians. Further, let anyone say anything he/she wants anytime, right up to the election.

Attacks on our rights are always offered with the argument that it is in the interest of the [downtrodden, poor, minorities…fill in your favorite victim]. The real reason is considerably less noble. It is to silence people whose views annoy pompous do-gooders or the government. Speech that is allowed only when approved by others cannot be construed as genuinely free, no matter what fairy tale reasons are conjured up to justify it. Perhaps the Supreme Court will remember that come their ruling.

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*Or the near-unspeakable case of participation in pornography by children.

**Though, by the way, not all wealthy people think that way. To wit, George Soros.

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About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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