“Political speech is indispensable to decision-making in a democracy, and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation,” read last week’s Supreme Court ruling, which struck down restrictions on certain kinds of political speech by corporations.
A corporation is an association of individuals, the Court pointed out, and those individuals retain their right to free speech when they choose to express their views through associations.
The importance of this decision cannot be overemphasized. It both upholds First Amendment protections on political speech and reinforces the crucial principle that the Constitution is a proscription on government power, not a prescription for desirable political outcomes.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-WI, for example, immediately denounced the decision as “ignoring judicial restraint” and giving “corporate money a breathtaking new role in federal campaigns.”
But as the court explained, “First Amendment protections do not depend on the speaker’s financial ability to engage in public discussion.” Feingold’s desire to restrict shareholders from effecting political outcomes though their corporate association is precisely the kind of usurpation of liberty that the Supreme Court is instituted to protect.
Feingold’s call for “restraint” in upholding the Constitution — due to his belief that shareholders have too much influence in the marketplace of ideas — is antithetical to liberty and would constitute a dereliction of duty on the part of the court.
Mike McCabe, Madison director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, condemned the court’s decision on similar grounds, saying it is “truly jaw dropping” that “our nation’s highest court concluded that corporations were not being adequately heard.”
But in fact, the court concluded no such thing. The principle explicit in the very words “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech” is that government has no right to decide who is and is not being adequately heard. This is what the Court based its decision on and what protecting liberty means.
Freedom means individuals are free to express themselves, form alliances and use their resources to influence ideas, public opinion and their government, however they see fit. The arguments that certain “powerful influences” are “bad for democracy” or “unduly influencing elections” are irrelevant. Those who believe this will have to battle it out in the marketplace of ideas like everyone else, as they have no right to muzzle anyone.
While it is disheartening to see political figures rebuffing constitutional principles in the name of controlling political outcomes, even more disturbing is the widespread equivocation between persuasion and force.
President Obama, for example, condemned the judges publicly and issued the following statement: “It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington” and pledged to “develop a forceful response to this decision.”
Putting aside his pompous disregard for separation of powers and the standard list of leftist villains, we find a gross inversion of where power actually lies.
It is not the power of money that wields a club and carries a gun, but the power of Washington. Corporations, regardless of their wealth, have only the power to voice their opinions and persuade others; Washington has the power to expropriate your money, shutdown your business and put you behind bars. Yet our culture’s equivocation between persuasion and force fuels the perverse belief that money is evil and government the savior.
Those who complain about the corrupting influence of money in politics should ask themselves whether it’s the money that is corrupt or the sanction we give government to expropriate citizens’ wealth and control their lives. All the money in the world can neither pick your pocket nor break your leg, but unrestrained government routinely extorts, bribes and coerces its citizens.
The divide between upholding freedom of speech as an inalienable right and the politics of pressure group warfare makes clear the contradiction of our mixed economy. We cannot have freedom of speech while violating a hundred other freedoms. Once government becomes the instrument of initiating force against citizens, everyone will clamor to take control of that force. Corporations will seek bailouts and favoritism, unions will seek wage controls and states will beg for federal handouts.
Once the principle that force can be used against individuals for the benefit of some alleged “public interest” is established, there will be no reason that an individual’s freedom to speak cannot be stripped from him for the alleged goal of “democracy” or fighting “special interests.”
The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the First Amendment right of individuals to speak alone or in concert with others — through unions, partnerships or corporations — should be applauded. Those who see such freedoms as a threat to society and the democratic process should question their conception of government as a coercive agent of wealth redistribution and social engineering; perhaps this is the real threat.
Jim Allard ([email protected]) is a graduate student in biological sciences.