Money, Politics, and the Problematic Assertion that Money is Speech

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If you are concerned about truth in politics then you have to push out the big money.
— Dr. Cornel West, 9/12/15

Imagine yourself and one hundred thousand others live on an island in the middle of the Pacific, and the national elections for president of the island are approaching. Candidates busily prepare their platforms trying to decide what to say to best represent their constituents. 

Now, in order to spread their word, they need to hold rallies, pass out fliers and pamphlets, as well as do whatever is possible to connect with every possible voter. In order to do this you need money, and enough of it to cover your expenses, particularly if you are not already wealthy enough to fund your election yourself. Furthermore, you need to raise more money than your opponent to counter any possible negative press they try to send your way. So, you decide to fundraise. You ask all your supporters to donate—the poor and the middle class—and they do enthusiastically. But between all your supporters, you were only able to raise $50,000, and your opponent on the other hand raised $100,000. So you begin to get nervous the well has run dry. 

Eventually, one of the local manufacturers takes notice, they mostly agree with your positions on social issues, but they aren’t thrilled about the regulations that have fined them for dumping manufacturing waste into the local fresh water river. This has cost their business money in both fines and paying for waste disposal, so they reach out to you. The CEO says that they will match quid pro quo what you have if you eliminate that policy. You know this violates your support of responsible environmental stewardship, but if you don’t take the money, then not only will you be incredibly far behind your opponent, but the CEO could choose to back your opponent setting you back even further. So you accept. After being contacted by a few other CEOs looking for policy guarantees in exchange for large campaign contributions, you out-fundraise your opponent, and eventually win; now, they expect a return on their investment. Keeping up your end of the deal, you deliver.  

This hypothetical example highlights the consequences of too much money in politics, and its problematic nature as it shifts the political voice out of the hands of the people and into the monied interests. A community that requires large amounts of capital to successfully win an election, in order to preserve equal representation should not allow economic contributions without regulation.


On Political Equality And Representation

Political equality and representation are important concepts to explore as we think about the intersection of money and politics. Aristotle asserts in Politics book VII that the city-state has a one single end, and this is important to note.  The city-states single end is to continue to exist and for it to exist all participate and see themselves as a piece of the state. This is diametrically opposed to the more modern individualism that rejects a communal sense of being for seeking out ones individual pleasures and desires. Thus, in this communal sense of being, one does not consider political equality, because by the nature of the city-state one is politically equal. 

One can see how Aristotle’s thoughts regarding the role of the city-state and the role of the individual within it is important to consider. The island and its resources are used by all and ultimately the goal for the continued preservation and growth of the island should be the primary concern of the island. This being the case, skewing the representation of ones voice within the community because of ones ability to provide a desired asset to an individual who holds more direct political power (selected candidate) for an exchange of quid pro quo creates an environment of inequality, and challenges proper representation.

Representation and political equality—insofar as everyone has an equal right in participation within the political system is necessary for a healthy community. But, there remains a contingent that see ones liberty (particularly in the negative “freedom from” sense) to be superior to an politically egalitarian community. They argue that political contributions (including monetarily) is speech and it is one’s natural right to participate it to the extent to which they see fit.


Money is Speech and Buckley v. Valeo

The conversation around whether or not money equals speech is a highly contentious one, and there have been multiple attempts to fix this exact issue in United States. Lawrence Lessig an in the 2016 primaries as a single issue candidate on this specific issue. Bernie Sanders ran likewise, and there are multiple PAC’s running on this exact issue. TYT’s Wolf PAC is trying to pass a constitutional amendment, and are also trying to lobby congress to change this issue.  Donald Trump used the “money in politics” talking point to lambast Ted Cruz and his wife in the primaries. And, looking forward at future elections, the group Justice Democrats are only running candidates who refuse to accept large donations. Clearly this is a hot bipartisan topic.

In 1976, the Supreme Court saw a case, Buckley v. Valeo, which would mark a major turning point in the discussion over money in politics. The outcome to which the courts acknowledged and set a precedent that money can, indeed, be political speech and thus protected under the First Amendment; that there is not an implicit quit pro quo should someone donate to a candidate. This position that one should have the right to donate whatever they see fit as their participation in political activity, gets to a deeper conversation regarding the perceived inalienably one holds, and the role and extent of government.

Isaiah Berlin, in this case, would likely support the position that indeed the government should not interfere with ones participation with government. He would likely argue that this is a freedom from (“negative liberty”)  government interference in ones economic choices. Columnist George Will explains in a video on money in politics by the conservative pop-education channel—Prager U—that, “the only constitutional way to reduce the amount of money invested in politics is to reduce the role of politics in the distribution of money.” A position that falls along similar lines as those Berlin holds—freedom from a coercive government that restricts ones participation in political engagement.

Other arguments in favor of a more libertarian position regarding the using of ones money to influence politics can be found with Chicago school economist Milton Friedman in his book, Capitalism and Freedom. In making a case in support of economic and political freedom argues, “Economic freedom is…an indispensable means towards the achievement of political freedom”. And, he further argues that “Political freedoms means the absence of coercion of a man by his fellow men.”  Thus gets to the crux of his argument which is the belief that the power to coerce is “fundamental threat to freedom.” This adamant position he takes is a clear indication that Friedman would side with Berlin and Will on the position that one should not be prevented from the opportunity to engage political activity as they see fit.


Money is NOT Speech: Examples from Absurdity

Herein lies a problem, what those who engage and propagate the argument that “money is speech” fail to recognize is that if taken to logical conclusions, present incredibly absurd situations. The late Justice White stated his dissent in part specifically on the relationship of money and speech: “[N]either the limitations on contributions nor those on expenditures directly or indirectly purport to control the content of political speech by candidates or by their supporters or detractors.” He further explains that, “The act of giving money to political candidates … may be used to secure the express or tacit understanding that the giver will enjoy political favor if the candidate is elected.” Justice White recognized the likely quid pro quo of the relationship between the politician and the donor, despite the claims that money is just an exclamation of support. 

An equally absurd application of would be to say, if caught soliciting a prostitute or illicit drugs that one is just vocalizing support for the concept of prostitution or the concept of drugs. We would argue that that notion is ridiculous—that this is an absurd example—but this is a similar line of reasoning, that somehow the contribution of money is protected speech under the first amendment. One could, as an opinion, state that they do not see an issue with donating large sums of money, that they do not inherently believe in political equality, and that they believe such an action should not be infringed upon by a coercive government (an argument by Berlin and Friedman). However, those positions—particularly not believing in political equality—are not popular positions, so instead Will channels his inner sophist and engages in stunning feats of mental gymnastics.

Problematically, for those who insist that money is speech (and therefore protected by the first amendment as a natural right) when the concept is invalidated ( and money as a protected right is no longer capable of being justified), then their argument becomes flaccid. And, the capability to convince others within their community that they—as an inalienable right—should be able to donate to their hearts content, looses it’s emotional appeal in comparison to those who champion equal representation of constituents by their elected officials. 

Quid pro quo and direct influence of an individual constituent on a politician other than the problematic nature of perceived or actual corruption being engaged in, would be furthermore challenged by political theorist Joseph Schumpeter, and rightly so. In his book Socialism and Democracy, Schumpeter, criticizes the ineffectuality of classical democracy and by claiming that rule by the people isn’t necessarily best for the people, and their perceived goods may not inherently be good. This can be directly related to the problems discussed throughout this essay. The constituent trying to directly influence the politician isn’t practical for the wellbeing of a community. Instead, Schumpeter argues a position of let anyone the opportunity to run for office and compete for votes. Should the elected official not keep up their end of the campaign promises and the people lose faith, evict the politician. 

Closing Thoughts

To take the position that one, by nature of their natural rights be able to economically contribute however much they see fit to whatever politician they see fit, and claim that it is their freedom of speech, is to argue a position that warps the concept of speech past its distinguishable characteristics, and to deploy it as a tool to obtain quid pro quo deals with people in political power, it would be disingenuous to think otherwise as one does not invest without some level of expectation of return. Much like fictitious example I presented in the introduction with regarding the manufacturer, he is incentivized to donate to the candidate less on their social positions and more on whether or not they will carry out the policy changes that would benefit the company, the politician soon becoming reliant upon the continual support of the donor if he wants to maintain his political power. This is the toxicity that we consider corruption. 

Instead, a system whereby all constituents can trust their politicians to represent their will as the electorate, is the most effectual. Unfortunately, regarding the United States, the institution of elections has become its own industry—as Andrew Cockburn puts it the “election-industrial complex”—and thus it will be incredibly hard to reverse much of the monetary corruption that has already infiltrated the system and festered. Publicly funded elections would be ideal to eliminate corruption, but as it stands is not viable. The best that seems to be able to be done is to raise awareness, seek to hold our politicians to high standards, and evict those who do not followthrough. 

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I hope you found this content interesting and engaging, please feel free to leave your thoughts below and tell me what you think. I will do my best to respond.

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This essay was initially written for a final in Professor Nadia Urbinati Political Theory 1 Class Fall 2017 at Columbia University. I am sharing it with you because I feel like it is becoming increasingly more relevant.