Category Archives: Free Speech

CEI Podcast — November 15, 2010: Free Speech and Video Games

Have a listen here.

Associate Director of Technology Studies Ryan Radia gives his take on a Supreme Court case concerning California’s ban of violent video game sales to minors. Keeping such things away from children is traditionally a job for parents.

The case has implications that reach far beyond video games. Because censorship is such a subjective thing, allowing it could have a chilling effect on forms of expression from art to music to film. The First Amendment specifically prohibits the government from sanitizing culture. That is up to the people themselves.

2010’s Record Election Spending Is Surprisingly Small

The Washington Post has a breathless write-up of this year’s midterm election spending:

In the latest sign of this year’s record-breaking election season, an independent research group estimated Wednesday that candidates, parties and outside interest groups together could spend up to $4 billion on the campaign.

$4 billion is a lot of money. The Post’s opinion staff writer thinks that’s frightening. $4 billion, of course, comes to $12.90 per person in a nation of 310 million people. So maybe not.

A bit more context: federal spending costs $11,290.32 per person. Regulation costs another $5,645.16 per person. That’s a total burden of $16,935.48 per person. American democracy is a very expensive form of government with surprisingly inexpensive elections.

Spending $12.90 to influence $3.5 trillion in spending and another $1.75 trillion in regulating seems like too little election spending, not too much. Total election spending is about the same as it was in 2000, when the federal budget was under $2 trillion.

Still, for a midterm, this year’s election spending is historically high. And a lot of people think there is too much money in politics. Fortunately, there is a surefire way for them to fix the problem: get politics out of our money.

Republicans and Democrats alike have made it clear that they have little interest in fundamental economic reform. So maybe the Post is right that they aren’t worth spending $12.90 on.

Unfortunately, as long as the Bush-Obama spending and regulating binge continues, people will be spending a lot more than $12.90 to get a piece of the action.

Foreign Money Is Not the Problem

President Obama has caused a stir recently by declaring that the Chamber of Commerce, which is running ads critical of his policies, is funded with foreign money.

It’s a weak criticism. And not just because the amount of foreign money involved is trivial. Or because labor unions and other political groups across the spectrum also accept small amounts of foreign money.

President Obama seems to be saying that people are smart enough to know whether or not a candidate or a political party is bamboozling them in their campaign ads. But people suddenly lose their wits when an outside group, or – gasp! – someone from another country does the exact same thing. That kind of cognitive dissonance must be difficult to live with.

Because arguments against foreign money in politics are so weak, people who use those arguments are either ill-informed or lying.

Lying is much more likely in this case. If your own arguments are weak, a common tactic is to distract your audience and hope they don’t notice. It works more often than not. Here, President Obama is taking advantage of the fact that almost all people suffer from anti-foreign bias. Not racism. Anti-foreign bias. They’re different. And pandering to that bias can be extremely useful politically.

Why does such a cheap tactic work? It’s because anti-foreign bias is in our DNA. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in small bands. Anybody outside that band was a very real threat to steal food, clothing, or potential mates. So people learned to be wary of outsiders. It was good for one’s life expectancy.

As tribes became villages, towns, cities, and now nations, the number of people we consider insiders has grown. And we treat outsiders much better than we used to. Trade is more common than war in most places. But most people are still instinctively leery of outsiders. It is our nature.

That’s why it’s disappointing to see President Obama so cynically play that card. Clearly he and the Chamber of Commerce prefer different policies. It would be nice to see the President engage the Chamber at a higher level than the ad hominem.

Send Your Kids to Camp Politics

This new video from the Institute for Justice is funny and sad at the same time.

Why Freedom of Speech Matters

“Freedom of thought, in any valuable sense, includes freedom of speech.”

-J.B. Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought

Disclosure and Campaign Finance

Regarding my last post on the ill-fated DISCLOSE Act, commenter Ben Hoffman writes:

How the [expletive] is disclosure “abridging freedom of speech[?]” There’s nothing wrong with knowing who paid for an ad, especially when it contains lies.

Ben raises a good point, if not very tactfully. The answer to his question is that freedom of speech includes the right to make speech anonymously.

Politics is such a combative sport that even donors are viciously attacked by the other side. Think of how Republicans treat George Soros. Now think of how Democrats treat Charles and David Koch. They are punching bags.

This is a deterrent to speech. It has a chilling effect on people who want to have their say, but would prefer not endure those ad hominem attacks. Or in some cases, threats of physical violence. People like Soros and the Kochs have much thicker skin than most people to endure all the ad hominems thrown their way on a daily basis. Think of how many potential donors stay silent because of that. How much speech is left unspoken?

Supporters of California’s wrong-headed Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage feared physical retaliation for their political donations when some activists published the names and addresses of donors who supported the measure, along with unsubtle hints that they deserved retaliation. Opponents of same-sex marriage are wrong on the merits of the issue. But they do not deserve to be threatened for being wrong. For them, the right to remain anonymous is a key part of respecting their freedom of speech.

Mandatory disclosure actively harms the right to free speech. It would cause a lot of people to stay silent when they would rather speak. That is wrong.

But that isn’t commenter Ben’s only concern. He worries that anonymity would embolden people to tell lies in political ads. Would it?

After all, under today’s partial disclosure system, both parties already tell plenty of lies in their ads every election cycle. Partisanship trumps truth for Republican and Democrat alike. But that does not mean that therefore, more disclosure is needed.

Ads that contain the real names of donors are taken with added credibility by people. Anonymous ads are taken with a grain of salt. And sometimes for good reason. That means anonymity has a cost. People hold an anonymous message to a higher standard before taking it seriously. Shockingly, voters are smart enough to come to their own conclusions.

According to the law of demand, raising the cost of anonymity means there will be less of it. If an anonymous ad has less impact of an otherwise identical disclosed ad costing the same amount of money, any rational donors will disclose their names unless they place very high values on avoiding Soros-Koch-style attacks. And if they feel that’s a fair tradeoff for reduced credibility, that’s their right.

There are already plenty of regulations for truth in advertising, libel, and the like. Let’s try doing a better job of enforcing those instead of passing more restrictions on the right to free speech.

Bill to Regulate Political Speech Fails

The Hill:”Senate fails to advance campaign finance bill

The First Amendment: “Congress shall pass no law… abridging the freedom of speech.”

Good news for anyone who wants to engage in political speech. But how sad that this happened because of politics, not principle.

It was mostly Democrats who favored the DISCLOSE Act. And according to today’s Senate vote, it was only Democrats who favored the bill. But Republicans are no heroes on this issue. Don’t believe their posturing. If the political winds were currently favoring Democrats, Republicans would be working their tails off to pass similar legislation.

The primary effect of campaign finance regulation is to stack the rules of the game in favor of incumbents. Both parties know this. And both parties will seek to use campaign finance regulation to their advantage however they can.

A Telling Headline

From The Hill: Vulnerable Democrats defend support for campaign finance legislation

Campaign finance regulations are an incumbent’s best friend. The incumbent already has name recognition, and a deep network of fundraising contacts. Heck, Congress’ franking privilege allows incumbents to send out de facto campaign messages for free. Challengers have none of those advantages.

It takes a lot of money to buy enough ads to get a challenger’s name recognition anywhere near the incumbent’s. Campaign finance regulations make it harder to raise that money, and harder to put up a fight against established officeholders. No wonder so many incumbents from both parties favor strict campaign finance regulations! It’s good for their job security.

Regulation of the Day 121: Cussing

It’s officially “Cuss Free Week” in California. Last Thursday, the state legislature passed a resolution to make the first week of March swearing-free.

Los Angeles County passed a similar measure last year, inspired by 14-year old who has started no-cussing clubs at schools across the country.

The resolution is non-binding, and will not be enforced. There are no First Amendment issues. It’s just a feel-good measure.

What doesn’t feel so good is the fact busy-body legislators feel it is their place to tell you to watch your language.

Then again, all the time they spent crafting cussing legislation was time not spent digging California even deeper into fiscal hell. Might I suggest that the California legislature also pass a non-binding “Eat Your Vegetables Week” resolution?

On the Radio – Campaign Finance

In about 20 minutes, I’ll be appearing on Paul Molloy’s radio show to talk about campaign finance regulation and free speech. Give a listen if you’re in the Tampa, FL or Little Rock, AR area.

You can also tune in by clicking here.