Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Free Speech for those who can afford it


Science fiction often frightens, even terrifies us with visions of totalitarian futures where the freedoms of western civilization are swallowed up by regimes that burn our books, rule by fear and crush our individuality, regulating even our most private emotions.  Sometimes, the nightmare of future tyranny comes in the overt and brutal form of the government's boot on the neck of a materially deprived and starving populace, as in George Orwell's "1984."  Other times, the evolution of tyranny is more subtle, and disguised in the pleasures and frivolities of a spoiled, opulent society, as in Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."

But, in the real world...are those the creeping footsteps of future tyranny we hear coming up behind us now?

Our way of life is based on the public's sacred right to elect their own leaders, and to base their decisions on the free and open flow of information.  Freedom of speech + Freedom to vote = Freedom.

But, maybe not anymore.  Not since the Supreme Court ruled (inexplicably) that freedom of speech can take the form of cash flow.  A while back, the Supreme Court declared that corporations are people and have absolute freedom of speech.  (Now there's science fiction for you - Corporations are people?  People who never die and don't have to pay taxes?  Night of the Living Dead comes to Wall Street.)  Now, the Supreme Court has taken it a step further by saying that wealthy individuals need adhere to virtually no limits on how much they contribute to their favorite candidates.  In other words, to paraphrase a line from "Animal Farm":  "We're all equal in our freedom of speech, but some are more equal than others."  The more money you have, the more free speech.  Wait...that means free speech isn't free.  You have to outspend the other guy, or your voice will be drowned out by his endless and omnipresent ads and propaganda, both subtle and covert.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower foresaw a time when "Politics in America would be just for the rich."  Way to call it, Ike.  If cash flow is free speech, then what is conflict of interest?  If you're a financial adviser working in a bank and you make a side deal with a customer for your own gain, that's conflict of interest, and you get fired for it.  If you're a news reporter who makes a side deal with a company you're covering for a story and "adjust" the story to benefit that company, that's conflict of interest and you get fired for that.  But, if you're running for an elected office whose occupants are sworn to uphold the interests of the public, and you accept huge amounts of money from private interests, that's not conflict of interest; that's business as usual.  If it's all right for political candidates to shape their campaigns in accommodation with legalized bribery from wealthy campaign contributors, how long before the Supreme Court says it's legal for office-holding legislators to accept bribes and favors from private interests in exchange for shaping policies and sponsoring bills according to what their pay masters tell them to do?  After all...citizens certainly have the right to speak out at public forums and through petitions in telling their elected officials what they think of the issues, and of their job performance.  And, if money is just another form of free speech, then why should exchanging cash or favors for votes be considered a crime?

The answer, obviously, is that money is not free speech.  For, as the saying goes: "Money talks louder than words."  The exchange of units of currency for service is not free speech; it's commerce.  The two are not the same, because one can be regulated for the public good, and the other can't.  We can vote to regulate commerce, in order to protect the health and general welfare of our communities, but if the only candidates we can vote for are candidates that are owned by the very commercial interests that threaten us, then we have no protection or control of our lives at all.

Free speech is supposed to be a guaranteed right accorded to all, rich and poor alike.  And, electoral politics, the ultimate expression of free speech, is supposed to be the great equalizer of society, the one absolute guarantee that the poorest citizen's vote counts no more or less than the richest, and that everyone's voice is heard.  If political free speech becomes a commodity to be bought and paid for, then the great equalizer of democratic society is gone, and speech is no longer free; it becomes just another function of Social Darwinism.  They might just as well start charging for admission to the polls, or deny admission altogether to anyone with a yearly income of under $600,000.00.

Political campaigns for public office are public utilities, like the police or fire departments, and as such should be publicly funded.  Each candidate should be limited to the same resources, just enough to get their message across.  Anything extra should depend on the degree of transparency and properly moderated debate the candidate agrees to.  Anyone applying to be a servant of the public interest should act like it, not like a servant of private interests.

So, why are we in this mess, to begin with?  If there's one thing the public loves to do, it's complain.  If there's one thing the public hates to do, it's vote, or do anything to contribute to the political process.  The less meaningful the vote becomes, of course, the more this will be the case.  If we don't get on our legislators now (while we still can) and get them to sponsor meaningful campaign finance reform bills and push them through Congress, we may yet wake up in a world in which freedom is an illusion, democracy a sham, and government a dictatorship of the 1% lording it over the groveling peasantry below.