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Citizens Ununited
22 Jul

It’s come to the point where we need to talk about money. Our culture had decided that this stuff you pass with your hands is equivalent to the sounds that come out of your mouth. By solidifying this analogy into law, we are drastically altering the nature of democracy. So it behooves us to understand what this does to our American ideals. The first step toward this understanding is to examine the validity of the analogy. What can it be about money that makes it equivalent to speech?

Let’s start with a fact. It is unassailably clear that speech and money are from different realms in life. As a species, our ability to speak predates our ability to trade. We are born with the ability to speak. Money is our invention. This alone should make any prima facie equivalence between the two suspect. But the current analogy posits money as an extension of our ability to speak. As though it is natural for speech to flow from vocal cords to paper to distribution networks to airwaves and even to space-based transmissions. Well, it is natural in the realm of economics, where money is a tool used to facilitate the purchase of any equipment necessary to get a message out. Advertising and other economic endeavors are eager users of the communications infrastructure that capital has created. Commercial speech uses this vast, expensive infrastructure because its intent is to get something back for the cost; a profit.

But what about speech that is not intended for profit, like political speech? I can hear the howls of disapproval already. Of course political speech is for profit! People vote for their own self-interest! Didn’t you ever hear that people vote for their wallets? Well, yes, actually I’ve heard all that, and I don’t disagree with any of it. We should, however, be clear about what we’re talking about when we make those arguments. They refer to the act of voting, the solitary choosing of a person who might think the way we do, not the renting of communications infrastructure to make an argument about that person or her policies. Voting itself is almost the antithesis of an economic transaction, as we cannot avoid being affected by the outcome. A majority of our neighbors might buy a new TV, but our lives will go on unchanged. Elections are different. Whether or not we vote for the winner, or vote at all, we all are going to live with the policies that are implemented after the election.

But when it comes to political speech, we are not talking about voting. We are talking about the arguments made public that precede the election. Specifically, we are talking about which voices are granted access to the communication infrastructure, and to what degree. So the real question is this: should the person who has won the game of economics by having access to great pools of profit be able to use that affordability to send their voice into space and back, to win a political debate about policy? If the answer is yes, another analogy comes to mind. Isn’t it the same as settling policy debates by arm wrestling, where the rules allow anyone who can afford them to buy artificial muscles or robotic arms? The whole idea of debating policy on the merits gets swept aside by the costs involved to have a seat at the table. Important policy debates are diminished to marketing campaigns governed by the rules of profit, instead of being governed by rules of debate that more narrowly seek some semblance of truth.

Do we really want to say that when someone is given a pay-cut, they are thereby being given a lesser role in our democracy? Speech is the tool of political debate. Money is the tool of profit seeking. When we conflate them we are only cheating ourselves out of hearing brilliant or well researched arguments whose only shortcoming is a lack of capital to ‘voice’ them competitively in the more expensive parts of our communication networks.


About the Author

Written by Stephen Taft

I live in New York City, work on Wall Street, and think about justice...all the time.

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