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Money Talks

Apr 15, 2014

Samuel Johnson famously said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. That would be a lot more help without the word “foolish.” When is consistency foolish and when is inconsistency wise? It is hard to be consistent because sometimes we like certain ideas and other times they become inconvenient. Occasionally it happens in the same sentence, as when someone says that you shouldn’t impose your values on others or declares solemnly that there are no absolutes. The first fellow is at that very moment imposing his values on others and the second is declaring an absolute truth. 

More often it is a matter of applying the same principle in one case and denying it in another case. When the United States Supreme Court recently struck down aggregate limits on political donations, the chattering class was almost universally appalled. The court had ruled that such limits violate the First Amendment freedom of speech, but is spending speech? With a few notable exceptions (Michael Kinsley for one) the left answered with a bombastic “no!” 

It is true that money isn’t speech in the same sense as opening one’s mouth isn’t speech. However, duct taping someone’s lips together is an effective curb on speech and limiting one’s power to spend can be an effective limit on the expression of ideas. If you say that a newspaper is free to print whatever opinions its editors choose so long as they don’t buy any paper or ink, you are no friend to the freedom of the press. 

In fact the folks who are strenuously denying that money is speech know very well that it is. If you don’t believe me, ask Brendan Eich. He now has some time on his hands. Eich was, very briefly, the CEO of a company he co-founded. Then he was forced to step down. Six years ago he donated $1,000 to the campaign for Proposition 8 in California. Prop 8 amended the state constitution to say, “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." That was the sin that cost him his job. 

Now I pause here to note that I am in favor of legalizing same sex marriage. I would not have contributed to Prop 8 or voted for it, had I voted in that state where once I lived. I also believe in freedom of speech and thought, and it seems to me that we live in dangerous times when a man can lose his job for taking sides on a ballot proposition. 

What is important here, however, is that Eich took a position that was shared by Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Senator Tim Johnson. President Clinton, after all, signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which did on the Federal level what Prop 8 did in one state. Yet none of the latter have suffered much for their positions. I doubt very much that those who opposed Mr. Eich for CEO will fail to vote for Hillary Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee in 2016. 

And why is that? It is because no one is fooled. Bill and Hillary and Barack and Tim didn’t really believe that same sex marriage was wrong. They took a position that they didn’t really believe in for reasons of political expediency. Mr. Eich, by contrast, could have had no ulterior motive. He suffered because his donation was a genuine expression of his beliefs.

That would be the point. Brendan Eich’s cool grand was obviously political speech. Instead of standing up on a soapbox or writing and printing his two cents worth, he donated to an organization that represented him on this issue. Eich has been defended by those who oppose gay marriage. He has also been defended by those on the left and the right who believe in free speech. No one, I think, has risen to defend him on the grounds that his contribution wasn’t speech at all.

If you really believed that money isn’t speech you would have to believe that someone’s political contributions are politically irrelevant. No one really believes that. To deny, then, that money is speech is foolish inconsistency. That almost means that the denier is a fool. 

Editor's Note: Ken Blanchard is our political columnist from the right. For a left-wing perspective on politics, please look for columns by Cory Heidelberger every other Wednesday on this site.

Dr. Ken Blanchard is a professor of Political Science at Northern State University and writes for the Aberdeen American News and the blog South Dakota Politics.


11:56 am - Tue, April 15 2014
Steve said:
I believe your opening quote is taken (originally) from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I suppose that is the danger of recycling talking points: you lose track of whose ideas you are advancing. The corruptive influence of money - vast sums of money - in the political arena sets up a quid pro quo expectation. That is wrong. That is the defining difference between money and speech - speech doesn't come with that corruptive side effect.
08:08 am - Wed, April 16 2014
dave tunge said:
You made my head hurt Ken.
Maybe, instead of electing our political representatives ( whoever has the most money wins), we should utilize a draft system such as pro sports uses. If a particular state finds their draftee non-productive they could trade for a better choice. If the representatives drug test positive or, heaven forbid, use a politically incorrect statement they could be benched for a season or fired.
Free speech should mean free speech. If it offends somebody then so be it.
Isn't it time we all get off the playground and grow up?
02:21 pm - Sun, September 26 2021
Ellen Ehrenhaus said:
Samuel Johnson penned the words about a "foolish consistency" in the 1700's & I have loved that quote since high school (over 40 yrs ago). It refers to those who do the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. A consistency is foolish when it leads to an undesirable outcome.

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