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October 2014

Money is Speech, Corporations are People, and Progressivism is a Dud

Economic liberty is neither separable from, nor inferior to, other freedoms.

The progressive left’s disregard, even disdain, for economic liberty undermines its ability to protect the freedoms it does care about. The same dynamic plays out among centrists and conservatives, to some degree, but it seems the left that is most prone to the error.

The progressive obsession with campaign finance law is an excellent lens for showing how its disdain for economic liberty leads to to undermine its support for liberties of other kinds; in this case, the liberty of free speech. After exploring the broad relationship between economic liberty and the wide variety of human ends that many types of people—left, center, and right included—support, I will consider the specific case of campaign finance regulation in greater detail.

One expression of the left’s disdain for economic liberty is its low opinion of property rights. Libertarians, by contrast, tend to want strong property protections. Property rights are an important part of any environment aimed at allowing humans to realize their visions for their lives. We engage in projects—the sort of efforts by which we define ourselves, like raising kids, building businesses, or creating great works of art—that require us to have exclusive control of physical things. This control cannot be contingent upon others’ endorsement or even understanding of the projects we undertake. Property is so tied up in our ability to achieve other values that some libertarians, such as Loren Lomasky, take humans’ need for and capacity to undertake projects as the primary justification of people’s rights. I don’t think that’s quite right, but it does speak to a good comprehension of the instrumental value of property in realizing a variety of human ends—including many ends valued by the left.

Libertarian theorists like Murray Rothbard have claimed, and I agree, that all rights are property rights. The right to free speech is the right to be able to dispose of your body and your belongings for purposes of expression. It’s the right to acquire products or services for purposes of expression, whether that means ink by the barrel or thirty seconds’ airtime during Monday Night Football.

The left’s contempt for economic liberty is expressed not only as disregard for property rights, but also as broad contempt for commerce, trade, and freedom of contract. A right to acquire those products and services needed for speech implies a complementary right to sell those products and services. One does not forfeit his rights to expression merely because he goes on someone’s payroll. There’s a George Carlin joke that goes:

I don’t understand why prostitution is illegal. Selling is legal. [Having sex] is legal. Why isn’t selling [having sex] legal?

I always found that framing of the issue fairly insightful. There are a variety of moral objections to prostitution that have been raised, but it seems to me that a lot of them are based primarily on disgust at the commercial aspect, rather than (for example) concerns about violence against sex workers. In fact, there seems to be a visceral disgust reaction to commercial activities in general that probably goes back to the days when merchants were considered lowly parasites and respectable people either worked the land or ruled over people who did. The disgust reaction doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I don’t mean to say that all interpersonal relations should be treated as transactional, nor do I mean to denigrate gift-giving, but there’s a world of difference between thinking that some relationships shouldn’t be viewed transactionally and thinking that the exchange of money turns otherwise permissible acts into impermissible ones because introducing money somehow “debases” those acts.

Likewise, one might make a variety of moral objections to corporations (or individuals, for that matter) purchasing speech or the means to perform speech, but as with the prostitution example, it seems to me that a great many people premise their objection on the idea that the buying and selling of speech or the means of speech is in itself distasteful. It is difficult to think of why the commercial aspect should not only rob speech of its commercial merit, but make it condemnable.

Noting the similarities between the cases, we can adapt Carlin’s joke about accepting money for sex to the issue of campaign finance, i.e., accepting money for speech: Selling is legal. Speech is legal. Why isn’t selling speech legal?

Cato scholar Trevor Burrus recently wrote an excellent column on that question over at the Forbes website, titled “Terrifying Senate Democrats Vote to Give Political Speech Less Protection Than Pornography.” He pulls no punches in excoriating progressives and Democrat politicians for their cavalier disregard for free speech:

By giving Congress and state governments essentially unlimited power to prohibit or regulate anyone who is spending money trying to “influence elections,” the Senate stooped to a level of governmental malfeasance previously reserved for the former Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela. In fact, if Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro passed this same law, Americans would properly see it as a thinly veiled attempt to squelch the political rights of Venezuelans and to entrench himself in power.

In an America, though, where the words “spend money to influence elections” are increasingly spoken in same the ominous tones used to describe the actions of thieves and murderers, those who want to genuinely protect political speech are becoming distressingly rare. Many Democrats have fully jettisoned their historic support for free speech in the name of “equality of voice”–with numerous exceptions to that supposed equality principle, of course, for Oprah, the New York Times, actors, established political parties, and incumbent politicians.

In practice, regulations on spending money to talk about politics with carve-outs for “real” journalists will result in the government deciding who does and does not count as a journalist. This would be a terrible outcome, as Burrus explains:

Eventually, governmentally determined “bona fide press organizations” will have to register with the government in order to criticize it, and our previous right to free political speech will become a government permit, given out by the very officials whose careers are contingent upon political speech.

You would think progressives wouldn’t want that outcome. At the end of his piece, Burrus explains that progressives seem to have what might be charitably called a blind spot in this area, related to their contempt for economic liberty.

Critics will respond that the resolution only regulates political spending, not political speech. This is one of the biggest pieces of piffle in modern political discourse. If regulating and drying up spending didn’t affect any political speech, then the reformers wouldn’t even want to do it. Rather than continuing to repeat that tired old line, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and other amendment supporters should come out and say precisely what they believe: that their view of “good government” requires giving them the broad power to censor political speech.

“Piffle” is right.

Restricting spending on political campaigns and political speech absolutely involves censorship. Censorship is, as Burrus claims, the intention. Spending money may not be literally talking, but free speech is about more than just literally talking.

A few days before Burrus’s column appeared, The Skeptical Libertarian blog posted a good explanation of this point on its Facebook page:

Okay. You’re right. Money isn’t speech. Money isn’t travel or religion, either. But a law that restricted your ability to spend money on cars and churches would still directly infringe on your freedom to move and worship as you please.

The idea that you only have a right to things that don’t cost money is idiotic. The Citizens United decision struck down a law that was so broad that it would—by the government’s admission—allow the government to ban political books and pamphlets (along with movies, TV ads, radio spots, yard signs, and billboards) within 30 days of an election. If that’s not censorship, you don’t have a clue what freedom of speech is intended to guarantee.

I want to be clear that I’m not trying to dismiss all ethical concerns about corporations. Libertarians can, do, and should expose corporations to ethical scrutiny. “Left” libertarians often are among the voices raising objections to, for example, limited liability—the doctrine that shareholders cannot be sued for harms caused by their corporate-employed agents. Corporate political spending, however, is not an area of ethical concern—at least, not if one values free speech.

As I’ve shown, the progressive position on campaign finance regulation rests on an untenable bifurcation of human liberty into “economic” freedom and “personal” freedom. You cannot be for free speech and simultaneously for restrictions on expressive uses of property. Understanding that contradiction entails abandoning the idea that economic liberty is separate from, and inferior to, other liberties. That conclusion is fatal to progressivism as a coherent ideology.