Money Is Not Speech

Article excerpt

"The Supreme Court said that money equals speech!"

Proponents of campaign finance regulation have thrown this trope around freely since 2010's landmark Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. Fortunately, the Court never actually made such an absurd equation. It would be hard to take the Court seriously if it had.

But the phrase is not just a throwaway idiom. For those who push the idea to the public that the Court has ruled as such - opinion leaders who should (and maybe do) know better - the phrase serves to caricature the Court's reasoning on campaign finance issues vis-à-vis the First Amendment. And the last thing America needs is to misunderstand the Court when it is actually doing its job: protecting constitutional freedoms from a meddlesome Congress.

The widespread mischaracterization likely stems from an earlier widespread mischaracterization, that of the ruling in Buckley v. Valeo (1976). Buckley overturned restrictions on independent political spending by citizens and associations, and on candidates' personal spending. A shocking number of scholarly texts and newspaper citations assert that in Buckley the Court ruled that "money is a form of speech." (Even Wikipedia's opensource entry for Buckley claimed this at the time of writing.)

In Citizens United the Court went beyond Buckley, ruling that the federal government may not limit corporate or union spending on independent political expression. The ruling is consonant with the text of the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech." Note that the clause concerns itself solely with its subject - Congress. The nature of the speaker - individual, group, or corporation - was apparently of no matter to the framers.

But putting aside the merits of the Court's ruling, what relationship does it cast between money and speech?

Though reams of learned text have been devoted to the topic, most economists agree on the very basics of what money is. It is credit for service rendered. Even when we purchase a good, all we pay for is the service of the raw materials having been located, gathered, altered, combined, and then brought to a location convenient to us. If I have a dollar, then I have made a sacrifice (assuming it was not a gift or loot . . . and I'm not a banker!). I expect to be able to use that dollar to induce another person to make a sacrifice on my behalf. Services can exist independently of money, as in a barter system or when we perform a service directly for ourselves. But every service we receive, however it may come to us, requires a sacrifice from someone for its performance.

Consider the interplay of money, service, and sacrifice in the hypothetical case of a young idealist who wishes to exercise his right to free speech.

Speech Isn't Free

He considers walking to the town square to regale passersby with his opinions. But he instead decides to take funds from his paycheck to buy a bus ticket. The result of either plan would be the same. …