The Egalitarian Assault on Free Speech

Why do so many on today’s left so forcefully advocate censorship when it comes to campaign spending? Hasn’t the left traditionally stood up for free speech, at least in the political realm?

The left has always suffered from a basic contradiction: It seeks to protect “civil liberties”—traditionally including the right of free speech—yet it does not recognize property rights, which are essential to all our rights. For example, one has no freedom of speech without the freedom to produce or purchase and then use print copies, internet connections, microphones, broadcast time, and the like.

Indeed, the left enthusiastically embraces the widespread violation of property rights, including the confiscation of wealth to finance the welfare state, in order to promote egalitarianism—that is, government-enforced equality of outcome. Egalitarianism, for example, is at the root of Barack Obama’s desire to “spread the wealth around.” Even though the left cannot achieve the impossible ideal of perfect equality of outcome, egalitarianism remains its driving motivation.

In recent years, the left’s commitment to egalitarianism in the sphere of economics has led it to support censorship in the sphere of political speech. For clear evidence of this, consider the two state measures on this fall’s ballot asking voters to restrict campaign spending.

In Montana, Initiative 166 states, “[T]he people of Montana establish that there should be a level playing field in campaign spending, in part by prohibiting corporate campaign contributions and expenditures and by limiting political spending in elections.”

In Colorado, Amendment 65 asserts that the government should restrict campaign spending “to ensure that all citizens, regardless of wealth, can express their views to one another and their government on a level playing field.” Elena Nunez of Colorado Common Cause, a cosponsor of the measure, said, “Amendment 65 is about leveling the playing field so everyone can be heard regardless of their ability to write huge campaign checks.”

The drafters of these censorship measures thus openly state their egalitarian motivation: They wish to forcibly limit the speech of those who have greater resources to make them “level” with those who have fewer resources.

Notice that these measures do nothing whatsoever to improve the ability of the non-wealthy (however defined) to advocate their beliefs. It’s not as though these measures seek to impose a special tax on the speech of “the wealthy” in order to subsidize the speech of “the poor.” Rather, these proposed censorship laws are purely about forcibly restricting the speech of those with greater resources. The measures thus provide an excellent illustration of the fundamental nature of egalitarianism: It is not essentially about helping the less-well-off, but rather about harming the better-off in order to achieve “equality” through destruction.

Contrast the egalitarian vision of equality of speech with the sort of equality envisioned by the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment: equality before the law. The First Amendment does not guarantee that each speaker will be equally persuasive, or that each speaker will be able to spend the same amount of resources advocating his beliefs. Rather, the First Amendment guarantees the equal right of each individual to speak, as much and as effectively as his abilities and resources allow. The First Amendment does not guarantee, for instance, that an illiterate street bum will be as effective a speaker as a well-educated and wealthy radio personality. The First Amendment is not about “leveling the playing field” in the sense of making all speakers equally effective; it is about establishing equal treatment under the law and prohibiting the government from restricting anyone’s (rights-respecting) speech in any way and to any extent.

The proposals to forcibly restrict campaign spending—which means, to impose censorship on political speech—flagrantly violate the principle of equality before the law. They also directly contradict the First Amendment—which is why both the proposals and their advocates seek a new constitutional amendment to overturn the First.

One pretext of the left’s egalitarian assault on free speech is the myth that the speech of the wealthy somehow infringes on the speech of the less-wealthy. For example, Elena Nunez and Danny Katz, the cosponsors of the Colorado ballot measure, write, “Amendment 65 tells lawmakers to level the playing field so that everyone has a chance to be heard, not just those with the ability to write $10 million checks.”

But the speech of the wealthy in no way restricts the speech of the less-wealthy. To take an example from Colorado, heiress Pat Stryker is worth $1.4 billion, and she has spent millions in Colorado politics promoting leftist causes and candidates. I have spent a miniscule fraction of that amount advocating my political beliefs in Colorado. Yet nothing Stryker has said, nor all the money she has spent advocating her views, has in any way restricted my ability to speak. Indeed, the only barriers to my speech are the existing campaign censorship laws currently enforced in Colorado. It is the nature of individual rights that they do not conflict when they are recognized and protected. Stryker can exercise her right of free speech fully, and so can I. By contrast, censorship laws necessarily restrict the speech of some for the alleged benefit of others.

Of course, leftists typically pretend that their censorship laws are not actually censorship. For example, Nunez and Katz claim that, under the proposed laws, “The content of speech would remain protected—absolutely—by the First Amendment so that every American could speak his or her mind without fear of government censorship.” However, this artificial division between the “content of speech” and the form of speech—in this case, the spending of one’s money to promote one’s ideas—is absurd. If the government said, “Anyone may say whatever he wishes—the content of speech shall not be restricted—within the privacy of his own home,” that would hardly recognize the right to free speech. Obviously restricting people’s ability to advocate their beliefs by means of restricting their ability to spend their resources doing so is censorship.

Observe the parallels between egalitarian wealth transfers and egalitarian censorship. Just as egalitarians believe it is inherently unjust for some to earn more than others, so they believe it is inherently unjust for some to spend more promoting their ideas than do others. Just as egalitarians pretend that “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer”—as though in a free market the success of one person necessarily comes at the expense of another—so they pretend that the speech of those with more resources somehow restricts the speech of those with fewer resources. In both cases, egalitarians see the world as a “fixed pie,” so the gains of some must impose a loss on others. In reality, when people respect each other’s rights, they either leave others alone or benefit from others by consensual exchange.

(A complication in the current debate is that some interest groups spend their resources to seek subsidies and unjust legislation, but in such cases the problem is not with the right of free speech, but rather with the power of government to impose rights-violating laws.)

While today’s egalitarian advocates of censorship target campaign spending, by logical implication they should also advocate broader forms of censorship. Various wealthy donors (e.g., Charles Koch) finance not only the campaigns of particular candidates and the promotion of particular measures; they also finance educational programs with the ultimate aim of affecting political change. According to egalitarian premises, there is no reason why the government should not also “level the playing field” by censoring speech when it comes to such educational efforts—which could include speech about philosophy, literature, economics, and so on.

Moreover, on the egalitarian premise that government should assure equal outcomes of speech, there is no reason why government should restrict its censorship to the expenditure of resources. No doubt some speakers are more thoughtful and more eloquent than others. More powerful than a million-dollar check is a rich, captivating voice or an eloquence that resonates with and appeals to listeners. On the egalitarian vision of equality, should not speakers with such voices or abilities somehow be forced not to sound so good or be so articulate? Should not the most persuasive writers be forced to garble their words so as to become “equal” to the less persuasive writers? These are the only ways to genuinely “level the playing field” in the realm of speech, so far as outcomes are concerned.

Those who wish to protect the right of free speech, to save the First Amendment, and to achieve equal treatment before the law must reject egalitarianism in its every form and manifestation. The proper aim of government is not to “level the playing field” by confiscating the wealth of the more productive or restricting the speech of the more persuasive or anything of the sort; rather, it is to protect the equal rights of everyone to live his own life, to control his own property, and to say whatever he wants (consistent with the rights of others) without fear of government interference. The animating principle of justice as recognized by America’s founding documents is not equality of outcome, but equality before the law.


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