Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Limiting speech by the rich

In classical republican theory, two major threats to self-government were recognized.

The first was a standing military. The second was concentrations of wealth.

Free speech is not absolute. The speech rights of military officers in USA are to a rather large degree limited by both custom and tradition, as well as law.

No such restrictions have been developed to limit free speech by the rich. With the rulings by the Roberts Court, it is time we start thinking along these lines. (The most notorious ruling was Citizens United v. FEC, which held that corporations have the same speech rights as human beings. This morning, the Court struck down any limits on the total amount of money any single individual corporation can give to any number of political campaigns.)

I don't know what the exact percentage is, but I think a good guess is that at least two thirds of political campaign spending goes for TV ads.

How informative are political ads on TV? And how truthful?

The United States was designed to be a democratic republic - a system of government that is designed to be responsive to the people of the United States as a whole, and not to the wealthiest 1 percent. The key to a functioning democratic republic is an informed citizenry. Yet, the key feature of modern political ads are thirty or sixty second TV ads that more often than not are deliberately designed to misinform, misrepresent, mislead, and inflame.

The founding fathers and mothers concluded, from their intense historical study of previous republics, most especially Rome, that the most important safeguard of a republic was a sense of public virtue, which is cultivated by general education of the population. John Adams was most proud of his writing of the Massachusetts Constitution, which includes this remarkable admonishment:
Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them, especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings, sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people.
Only an educated public could spot those political leaders who had been corrupted and lost their sense of public virtue, and subject them to the censure and punishment requisite for preserving the republic. As Jefferson states, "An informed citizenry is the bulwark of a democracy."

Now, we need to ask the question, does electronic means of communications lend itself to informing citizens? Well, yes and no. Certainly, there are lengthy documentaries that serve to inform; there may even be 30-second political ads that inform truthfully. But I believe that there is a major difference between electronic media and printed media: electronic media, most especially in the form of short radio and TV spots, are designed more to appeal to emotion than to reason. I believe that social scientists such as psychologists, sociologists, and linguists can marshal more than enough evidence to prove this - even in a court of law. Recall that one of the historic developments in U.S. jurisprudence was the Brandeis brief, a legal argument submitted to the Supreme Court by Louis Brandeis (before he was appointed to the Court), which relied more on sociological studies and statistics than on legal citations to make the argument that it was NOT unconstitutional for a state to restrict the number of hours a woman could work each week. (The issue was that working 50 or 60 or more hours a week had a negative effect on the "health, safety, morals, and general welfare of women.")

Similar to Brandeis' important and pioneering use of social studies and statistics to buttress a legal argument, I believe that the scientific evidence can be marshaled to show that short radio and TV spots do more harm than good when weighed in the balance of whether the advance or retard the public virtue of the republic's citizens. No less than six studies of Fox News viewers showed that they were much less informed than those in the control sample. By joining such social science with classical republican theory, I believe the argument can, and should, be made that political ads on TV and radio can be declared unconstitutional and be banned, just like cigarette commercials.

By banning political television ads, you remove the major need for huge amounts of money in political campaigns. Of course, other uses of billions of dollars might be found, such as get-out-the-vote efforts and phone banks. But are these other uses as likely to mislead and misinform? The best solution to removing the influence of money on politics is probably going to remain total public financing of political campaigns. 

Moreover, I believe there is a good argument to be made to banning free speech by the rich entirely. Classical republican theory is quite clear on the dangerous and destructive role the rich often play in usurping political power in a republic. Banning free speech by the rich is not as outlandish as you probably think at first - there already is a group of citizens who have their free speech rights severely restricted, as much by custom and tradition as by law: military officers. Just think about that for a minute, and you realize that it is entirely in accord with the belief that one of the greatest threats to a democratic republic is a standing military.

Well, in classical republican theory, the rich are as much a threat as a standing military. It is unfortunate that the view that the Constitution is irredeemably flawed because it favors the rich has been gaining currency as we slide deeper into oligarchy and economic debasement. I interpret the historical record quite differently. Madison's Federalist Number 10 on factions I interpret to be a warning about the dangers of economic interests: "the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property," Madison wrote. Therefore, he continues, "The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation..."

Madison is not arguing that economic inequality is desirable or even acceptable. Rather, he is arguing that it is inevitable, and, moreover, economic inequality is so dangerous and so pernicious, that the entire framework of government is being erected with an eye toward checking and corralling its political effects.

Can restricting the free speech of the rich be considered a legitimate means of checking the effects of the "unequal distribution of property"? Maybe, maybe not. I suppose not many people would agree with me on this issue.


Humanity is now confronted with the problem of global climate change. Most of our very best scientists are warning that this problem threatens humanity's very existence. The most recent warning was just two days ago, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a 2,600-page catalogue of the risks to life and livelihood resulting from climate change. 

In June 2008, James Hansen - one of the world's leading climate scientists, and one of the first to warn of global climate change - used the 20th anniversary of his groundbreaking speech (pdf) to the US Congress to suggest that we need to begin treating purveyors of gcc misinformation as criminals.  "When you are in that kind of position, as the CEO of one the primary players who have been putting out misinformation even via organizations that affect what gets into school textbooks, then I think that's a crime," Hansen told The Guardian.

In 2010  Donald Brown, associate professor in environmental ethics, science and law at Penn State University, put forward the argument again:
The corporations that have funded the sowing of doubt on this issue are clearly doing this because they see greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies as adversely affecting their financial interests.
This might be understood as a new type of crime against humanity. Scepticism in science is not bad, but sceptics must play by the rules of science including publishing their conclusions in peer-reviewed scientific journals and not make claims that are not substantiated by the peer-reviewed literature. The need for responsible scepticism is particularly urgent if misinformation from sceptics could lead to great harm.
We may not have a word for this type of crime yet, but the international community should find a way of classifying extraordinarily irresponsible scientific claims that could lead to mass suffering as some type of crime against humanity.
Not many people have begun to consider how the existential threat of global climate change will impact and change our political and economic beliefs and behavior. I believe conservatism, oligarchy, neo-liberalism, are all spent forces. They have had their day in the sun, and I believe the majority of people now recognize that these political beliefs and practices do far more harm than good. But more importantly, they have all failed miserably to solve the problems now threatening human existence. And humanity WILL survive, though there will be intense suffering and deprivation experienced by billions of individual people. For humanity to survive, humanity will do what is necessary to survive. And right now, that means terminating the political nightmare of the past half century of domination by conservatives, oligarchs, and neo-liberals. These harmful political beliefs and practices have been deliberately fostered and funded by rich reactionaries, using such organizations as the American Liberty League, the John Birch Society, the Mont Pelerin Society, the American Enterprise Institute, and Freedom Works.

Can we really afford to allow the rich to continue misusing the freedom of speech?

I believe only a response firmly grounded in the classical republican theory of government, which inspired the creation of the United States, will give us an answer that allows us to circumscribe the harmful behavior of the rich, while safeguarding the rights and liberties of the vast majority of citizens.

1 comment:

  1. The Roberts court just handed a billion dollars each election cycle to the big media companies. This money will go to the owners of TV and radio stations, and newspaper owners (Glen Taylor's acquisition of the Strib making more sense to you now?).

    So who will criticize this decision? Not our TV, radio or newspaper people, that's for sure.

    Keep on bloggin', you're all we got left.