Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Money is Speech

Or, rather, a means to speak.

In the days leading up to the election, some arguments in more public forums have strayed into the various minutia of issues; among them concerns about the Citizens United decision and campaign financing more generally. I won't get into the argument over whether corporations are "people" or not, but it's worth addressing at least one related claim. Dissenters, when presented with the argument that a corporation (or persons thereof) should be entitled to free speech, say boldly, "Since when is money speech?" It's an interesting rhetorical flourish but it seems like you could draw some bad political conclusions from such an inference.

Money in itself, or any economic means for that matter, isn't speech in the literal sense. But it is often an indirect vehicle for speech. Imagine if I were to tell you that you could not spend money on paper. All of a sudden we could not write articles or novels, or distribute pamphlets, books, or magazines - all considered mainstays of our conceived notions of speaking. If you came to me and complained that I was abridging your freedom to speak, would me saying, "Since when is money speech?" assuage your concerns? Why, I'm not stopping you from speaking freely; I'm merely keeping you from purchasing paper. Don't you see?

This is the thin veil by which the government all too often effectively strips us of our very basic liberties, and few people seem to see its coercion as such. We are ostensibly free to speak - withholding the exceptions for campaigns, libel, treason, and copyright. Likewise we are able to own firearms - at least the ones that meet all the requirements, specifications, and regulations of our dear leaders. And we all know you have the freedom to smoke - provided that you're one hundred feet away from any building and are able to jump the 200% to 500% tax hurdle.

Home of the brave, land of the free. Well, free to the degree they outline freedom for you at least. I understand the concern that many people have regarding corporate influence on the political process, but trying to stifle campaign contributions is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and further creating a case and precedent for the stifling of freedom. From a political perspective, campaign contributions don't even begin to measure up to the other ways corporations wield power and influence with the government. And, as has been pointed out time and time again, this is not a bug of the system - it's a feature. No amount of legislation and feel-good bulwarking will divorce state power from economic power. It's a symbiotic relationship; one giving the other solvency.

Of course, the debate will go on. And this isn't all to say that if campaign financing were hedged tomorrow that the world would suddenly fall apart. My primary concern is for the precedent it sets with the logic of its supporters. I don't believe that limiting the concept of free speech to its most literal and direct interpretation will help preserve it. More importantly, it works to further marginalize the importance of freedom with respect to our economic means. Too often we take shortcuts for political expediency, and freedom suffers.

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