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Back to the 17th Century: Money and Political Speech

by Robert E. Mutch on Jun 24, 1999

The Supreme Court says it is, and used this argument to weaken the campaign finance reforms passed after Watergate. One of the justices even coined the shorthand phrase by which this argument is now known: Money is speech. It’s been a favorite of reform opponents ever since. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, for example, claims that the 1999 version of the Shays-Meehan bill “threatens the First Amendment and political participation in the American political process.”

He’s wrong. The real threat to participation is from the money-is-speech argument itself. Its very premise implies severe limits on effective citizenship: If money is speech, it follows that the rich have greater capacity for speech than the rest of us.

In a democracy, speech is even more important than voting. Only through unfettered discussion can citizens cast informed votes. The claim that the rich are better than the rest of us at this most important of political activities links citizenship to wealth in a way that has long been outside the mainstream of American democratic thinking. It’s a throwback to the kind of restrictive, property-based politics we haven’t seen in well over 100 years.

The belief that those with property had more capability for citizenship than those without it was widely held in the 17th and 18th centuries. Because the propertyless were employed by, in debt to, or in more subtle ways dependent upon the propertied, there was some validity to the argument that giving them the vote would only make them the political appendages of their landlords and creditors.

Sir William Blackstone, who greatly influenced Anglo-American law in the 18th century, said that the purpose of property qualifications was “to exclude such persons as are in so mean a situation that they are esteemed to have no will of their own.” By the mid-19th century, such persons not only had a will of their own, they were gradually getting the vote. John Stuart Mill observed in 1861 that voters no longer could be coerced by an oligarchy of landlords; rather, he wrote, “[t]he electors themselves are becoming the oligarchy.”

Mill’s fear, like that of today’s money-is-speech proponents, was that the nonwealthy majority would use its power to enact “class legislation.” In 1976, two of the lawyers who persuaded the Supreme Court to adopt that argument wrote that “the wealthy need means to defend themselves politically against the greater numbers who may believe that their economic interests militate toward leveling.”

In this view, as one of their colleagues argued before the Court, equality of political voice “is an impermissible goal.” Mill had made much the same argument more than 100 years earlier: Every citizen “has an admitted claim to a voice,” he wrote; but “that every one should have an equal voice is a totally different proposition.”

The industrial revolution undermined property ownership as the means for deciding how large a voice each citizen should have, so Mill updated 17th-and 18th-century political theory by basing citizenship on “mental superiority.” He proposed giving plural votes to employers, bankers, merchants, manufacturers, and others “whose opinion is entitled to greater weight.” This weighted voting scheme would, he hoped, “prevent the labouring class from becoming preponderant in Parliament.”

Society has changed even more rapidly since Mill’s time. Today there is broad agreement that all citizens should be equal. The argument for inequality still thrives, though, because it is updated continually to keep pace with the times. Equating political spending with political speech is but the latest version of a very old argument.

The money-speech equation was a shrewd strategic move because it disguises money’s link to power by attaching it instead to the most widely revered part of our Constitution — the First Amendment. It makes the argument appear to be about defending everyone’s right to free speech rather than about protecting wealth’s claim to a larger voice. It’s a brilliant updating of property-based politics.

Robert E. Mutch, an independent historian in Washington, D.C., writes for the History News Service.