Sunday, February 14, 2010

Taking up too much space in the market.

I found this interesting little anecdote while roaming around on Digg, and since I don't want to be one of those people who only reads posts they agree with I read it through. It mentioned something that I've heard mentioned quite a few times since the Citizens United ruling went down. The writer of this post seemed to think that the only reason why a progressive individual (such as myself) would want to prevent corporations from contributing a lot of money to elections - or why we'd want to prevent them from doing anything, for that matter - is because we're a bunch of elitists and think that all the normal everyday Americans are gullible and stupid.

According to this guy's post, the liberal with whom he was talking did say that most people aren't "intelligent" enough to understand contracts they make with banks or other corporations. To be fair I've met a few other liberal-types who've expressed a similar sentiment... but I disagree. I don't think you'd have to be stupid to not understand a bunch of text that's really small, really dense, and full of legal jargon. The fact that some people (myself included) find that stuff completely obtuse and mystifying doesn't mean we're stupid - it means we aren't lawyers. The people writing those contracts know this, and they overload them with information, knowing that we probably won't be able to process all of it, and hoping that we'll miss something that will allow them to screw us over later.  The best thing you could call this is a dishonest business practice.

Now on to Citizens. For-profit corporations are not just a bunch of people who "choose to organize"- they organize specifically to make a profit. I don't have any problem with this per se. I do have a problem when those with more money start to feel like they are entitled to more of everything else as well - including more speech. Any asshole can get a free blog and write stuff on the internet, but if you want anyone to ever see it you've got to write good stuff, encourage people to link to it, and put forth effort to get more page views and be seen.

If you've got money to spend, you can get a little creative. Instead of putting forth all that effort to get head, you can buy ad space on other people's websites, and maybe even get some pay for placement advertising in some of the major search engines. If you've got lots of money to spend then you could buy ad space other place - on TV, on the radio, in newspapers and magazines, all over billboards, so that people can't help but at least notice you and whatever it is you're saying. If what you're saying happens to be untrue you could get some phony "experts" to publicly support you, maybe throw together a "study" as well, and run big smear campaigns against anyone who disagrees with you. If you do all this, and people believe you, does it make them stupid? Or does it just mean that your lies and distractions were very, very effective?

My concern over Citizens v. FEC isn't about anyone's intelligence, it's about information. It doesn't matter how smart you are if all the information you have is irrelevant or false - you will still make a bad decision. Large corporations have enough money to make it fairly easy to not only fund candidates and ballot measures that they like, but to spread a lot of misinformation around about the ones they don't like. If the lies get repeated often and loudly enough - and if no one can hear those who try to refute them - then they'll be believed. This doesn't mean the people who believe them are stupid. It means that the people and entities who do this have a vested interest in making sure that people only hear their version of things, and that they've also got the money to ensure that this happens. 

The idea of giving corporations unlimited free speech is in agreement with the letter of the Constitution, but it contradicts the spirit of it. Part of the rationale behind freedom of speech is the idea that if everyone can express themselves and argue over their ideas out in the open, the best ones will win out and society will be improved. This concept is called the "marketplace of ideas" - the Thomases Jefferson and Paine were both fans of it, and Paine ultimately got it from John Milton, who had this to say about it:
"Let all with something to say be free to express themselves. The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished. Government should keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other."
 I know some people will (and probably already have) interpreted this as being in favor of the Citizens ruling - government shouldn't get involved, right? But the thing is, Milton was alive and saying these things right around the ten-year period after the English Civil War when the Kingdom of England, Scotland, and Wales was replaced by an English republic. Milton was a strong supporter of the republic, and while  we can't know exactly what was going on in his head when he wrote this,  I would guess that every time he said "government" he was thinking "monarchy". In any case he probably wasn't thinking of the kind of government that would adopt part of his philosophy as one of its founding principles.

Milton's philosophy, and our First Amendment which came from it, cannot work if  the false and unsound  are allowed buy up more than their fair share of the marketplace and push everyone else to the back. I don't think I'm out of line to say that people like Milton and Jefferson would have objected very strongly to this - certainly more strongly than they would to the efforts of our democratic-republican government to correct it and let the rest of us be heard.


Post a Comment