Alternate Free Speech Histories

1907: [US] Congress bans direct contributions to candidates from corporations.

1947: Congress expands restrictions by barring corporations and unions from using funds from their general treasuries to support candidates, which would include advertising to help a candidate, for example.

That history may soon change:

More than 100 years of restrictions on corporate support of political candidates will be at stake next week when the [US] Supreme Court considers … casting aside previous rulings that uphold laws restricting corporate support of political candidates.  The court ruled in 1990 that corporations, because of their “immense aggregations of wealth,” possessed a unique ability to drown out the voices of individuals in the nation’s political conversation. That precedent was reinforced in 2003 when the court upheld the federal campaign finance law that limits the electoral influence of corporations, unions and special interest groups.

Politicians are grateful to and beholden to whomever convinces voters to elect them.  This is an inescapable feature of democracy; whoever can persuade voters becomes a power behind the throne.  Once upon a time some sort of pundits persuaded US voters that non-media firms are too persuasive; if those firms were allowed to try to persuade voters they would succeed in doing so and gain power thereby.  And this was somehow bad.  So voters let politicians ban non-media firms from trying to persuade voters in elections.

The pundits who are still allowed to try to persuade voters still do so, and they are now the powers behind the throne.  They continue to convince most of us that we should not be allowed to listen to non-media firms, regarding elections or off-label drug uses.  We believe those we are allowed to hear when they tell us that we should not be allowed to hear the corrupting voices of certain others.

But what if history had gone the other way?  What if it had been regular firms who had persuaded us that we should not be allowed to listen to the corrupting influence of activists, interest groups, academics, or media pundits?  Those now familiar voices would instead have been silenced and we would now instead be persuaded by firms, not only regarding elections but also regarding who can be trusted to have a voice in elections.  We might again have believed those we were allowed to hear when they told us we should not be allowed to hear the corrupting voices of certain others.

The more plausible is this alternative history scenario, the more you should wonder how sure you can be that your history is right and that alternate history would have been wrong about who should be allowed to persuade voters.   Yes humans may be biased to listen too much to certain sources, but you should expect the sources you are now allowed to hear to be biased to point the accusing finger at other sources, and not themselves.

In a third alternate history, all these voices would be allowed to persuade voters in elections.  And some sources would end up being the most persuasive in this scenario, earning their position as the biggest powers behind the throne.   Standing outside all these different histories, what reason do we have to think that these sources that would win in a full open contest do not deserve to be heard?

Added:  In another alternate history firms were allowed to persuade voters, but only in Latin or Esperanto.   Communicating well takes effort; allowing talk but forbidding effort to talk is pretty much forbidding to talk.

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  • Mencius Moldbug seems to be writing that alternate history now, in the hopes of being ahead of the game when the current system collapses of its own contradictions. The hope for such an occurrence is why people call themselves “progressives”. Campaign financing is a bit too boring for him though.

    That “non-media” clause may not be loose enough. There are now many who want to go after Fox, saying they should not allowed to lie.

  • “what reason do we have to think that these sources do not deserve to be heard?”

    Pundits and media firms are more likely to engage in persuasion on issues in which they do not have a direct conflict of interest in the outcome. Of course, media firms desire to be interesting and entertaining and often a part of firms with conflicting interests or have them as advertisers. This biases them, but it’s hard to see them on average being as misleading as a firm lobbying for no reason other than its own self interest.

    Public choice theory would tell us that most money spent on lobbying and persuasion is a zero-sum competition between different interest groups and the less of it we have, by any means, the better.

    • By this argument we should forbid organized interest groups of any sort from trying to persuade voters; such groups usually have interests in the outcomes.

      • Early spending provides voters with information and opinions more than it simply competes. As spending gets higher, voters are saturated with all of the information they are capable or willing to process, so competition relatively dominates.

        Worth noting that “corporations and unions ” and almost bound to pursue the interests of their members to the exclusion of all others in society. By contrast “activists, interest groups, academics, or media pundits” are more likely (even if still unlikely) to be promoting their views because they perceive them to be good for society as a whole and not just because they benefit themselves or the members of their organisation.

      • Jeff

        That’d be great, if we could define interest groups in some way that you couldn’t get around easily enough.

        I’m not sure that the ban on corporate speech with regard to elections had the effect you claim (empowering the activists to control the strings) because while activists power the elections, lobbyists, as often or more paid for by industry, write the laws. But it’s ridiculous to define corporations as evil in this way then allow media companies with just as much of an aggregation of wealth to have free rein.

        It seems impossible to, on paper, define the bad guy into an inescapable box, but there is a bad guy: people who use their money to convince voters of untrue things (yes, that’s got a fuzzy edge). The more I fuddle around with how difficult it is to stop that, the more I’m convinced that we should explore other systems. Futarchy, or two ideas proposed by Heinlein: chosen representatives where a representative to Congress is selected simply by gathering enough votes and then represents those votes (so everyone gets a representative, and, presumably, can revoke them by removing (enough of) their support); and the second chamber of Congress being one which strikes down laws instead of passing them.

      • Jeff

        Note: I don’t mean, in my previous reply, to imply that I think any of those systems would actually fix this problem. I do, however, think that changing systems would give us some years, or possibly decades, while those who spread lies try to figure out how to game the new system, and I wonder often if that’s the best we can get. In futarchy it costs more to game the system, but it still seems highly possible to find bets where you can lose money getting a policy passed that then gains you more than you lost.

      • Also note that voters can be aware of and take into account claims about which sources pursue “the interests of society as a whole.” No obvious need to ban any sources from speaking.

      • They could do this, but as they have no personal incentive to vote well (it’s mostly signalling and self expression and such), why would you expect them to put in the effort to uncover the sources of their ‘information’ and their personal interests in the outcome?

        I’m not saying banning is a good idea necessarily, but if people are easily manipulated and unmotivated to vote well, it’s easy to see how restrictions could improve the outcome if done well.

      • If we can’t expect voters to bother to care which sources are more self-interested, how can we expect voters to bother to care which sources to listen to about which sources should be allowed a voice in elections?

      • Grant

        I see the breakdown as:

        Self-interested (e.g., corporate) special interests
        Due to the incentives facing private businesses, corporations will lobby for policies which serve their own self interests above all else (though those self interests may including signaling altruism, which may require actual altruism). We can expect these interests to be well-informed because otherwise they would not expend resources influencing politics.

        These interest groups can create harm through programs like sugar tariffs or corn subsidies, or help matters by supporting free trade and the like. To me, a multitude of self-interested and informed groups seem better able to provide for the public good of good policy than an uninformed public, but they’ll certainly do some harm too.

        Signaling (i.e., non-corporate) interest groups
        These are largely groups of people trying to signal their intelligence and altruism via politics. They are largely uninformed because they have no significant incentive to make accurate political and economic predictions.

        Media firms:
        These are incentivized to give their customers what they want. Since customers are largely interested in politics to signal their own intelligence, allegiance or altruism, we should expect media firms to help them do these things. They have no reason to be more informed than their customers demand (which is little).

        Because of the low number of opinions large media firms can express, I would expect their influence to reduce the variety of political opinions. This can get rid of silly ideas but consolidate popular yet bad ones, such as the Iraq war.

  • not that it will work in the long run, but the single largest piece of duct tape you can put on a democracy is in making votes transferable, or in other words equity in USG. Of course treasury notes are already basically non-voting stock in USG.

  • The issue becomes more fun if we look at as instance of the age old battle between Rule by Merchants and Rule by Scholars. This is a pure power grab by the Scholars. They have curtailed the ability of the Merchants to influence policy. Only official Scholars ( big media, university academics) can say what they want with as loud of megaphone as they can afford.

    One could indeed imagine an alternative history. Imagine the separation of church and state clause was applied to Harvard Seminary ( oops I mean University).

    • Robert Koslover

      Good one.

  • josh

    Aren’t The New York Times, all NGOs and Harvard University all corporations with enormous resources and the power to drown out individual voices?

  • joseph

    In addition, we might say in the situation in which all voices are allowed to speak, they would all have a vested interest in muzzling other opposing voices so that they would have unchallenged influence. The voice that was the most influential would be most likely to persuade the powers that be to muzzle the other voices. In other words, interests, groups, media and such were successful at silencing non-media corporations because non-media corporations are among the least influential. Quite the opposite of having inordinate influence (as is the rational for muzzling them) non-media corporations may be among the least influential.

  • Reston

    … at stake next week when the [US] Supreme Court considers … casting aside previous rulings that uphold laws restricting corporate support of political candidates…


    …so five (of 9) non-elected & unaccountable lawyers, costumed in medieval clerical garb, can cast aside a century’s worth of “established law” at their personal whim.

    And somehow from that, the “obvious” democracy problem is who American voters should be legally permitted to hear (???)

    No. The core problem is that the connection between American voters and their government/law is so tenuous… as to be non-existent.

    The distilled essence of democracy is majority-rule from the citizenry, but you will not find that in the U.S.

    SCOTUS makes & breaks laws by the thousands. Virtually no one even in Congress took office with a majority vote of the electorate. The current President assumed power with preference of a mere third of the American electorate.

    Seems to be a lot more at stake than just another frivolous edict from the SCOTUS clerics.

  • Consumatopia

    Some sources of influence are powerful because they have the trust of listeners, and some sources of influence are powerful because they can afford the biggest megaphones whether listeners particularly trust them or not.

    The former will sometimes be dangerous, but any attempt to regulate them would be more dangerous. The latter are always dangerous, and it’s not clear at all that we can continue to have a representative democracy should they be unshackled. “Pushed” information is just inherently more dangerous than “pulled” information, and so long as the vague distinction between “money” and “speech” in our current system roughly maps onto the push/pull distinction, the system should be retained and made stronger.

    In our current history democratic capitalism triumphed over autocracy, and we all sing the praises of democratic capitalism. No doubt if autocracy had triumphed, and in some places it has, we would all sing the praises of autocracy. This does not change the fact we sing rightly and freely in this world but coerced and wrong in the other world.

    • How do you know the currently banned sources would not be just as trusted as the now allowed sources?

      • Consumatopia

        The currently banned sources are only banned very, very weakly–there’s still a great deal of money in the political environment, and the currently permitted sources are actually still on friendly terms with the banned sources. I can’t guarantee that my alternate self wouldn’t trust people with money more than I do here, but I can pretty much guarantee that it would only be for bad reasons.

      • Grant

        I think it should be mentioned that while there is a lot of money in the political environment, in the grand scheme of corporate America there is very little in it. The Obama campaign raised something like $0.75 billion, which isn’t a lot compared to what some corporations take in as profit each year.

        I wish I knew why there wasn’t more money in politics. It seems like there should be?

    • This does not change the fact we sing rightly and freely in this world but coerced and wrong in the other world.
      It should make you more skeptical about our aristocracy of pull. Do you think you could convince the version of you from an autocracy? Or would he (or she) be as horrified by our world and the conventional wisdom there as we might be of theirs?

      • Consumatopia

        The meanings of “pull” here aren’t related. By pull, I mean that I consume a piece of media because I find it attractive–trustworthy or entertaining. And there are problems and dangers with that, but it’s not related to the “pull” of quid-pro-quo nepotism.

        This seems like asking whether the opinion of my alternative self after having undergone brainwashing should be trusted on the topic of brainwashing. The whole danger of autocracy and plutocracy is that ideas and arguments can be overruled by the force of coercion or bribery. Assuming my alternative autocratic/plutocratic selves bought into their respective systems, they’re simply going to be beyond any argument. And by the logic of their worlds, they shouldn’t even be trying to convince me, they should be trying to bribe or coerce me.

      • TGGP

        “Pull” is not merely nepotism, it is influence over the government. The government has been influenced to privilege some kinds of corporations (media ones) over others.

        This seems like asking whether the opinion of my alternative self after having undergone brainwashing should be trusted on the topic of brainwashing.
        The question is whether YOU can more confidently say you are not brainwashed and have accurate beliefs than your counterpart, who would likely claim that his/her beliefs are perfectly sensible while yours are deranged.

      • Consumatopia

        “Pull” is not merely nepotism, it is influence over the government. The government has been influenced to privilege some kinds of corporations (media ones) over others.

        Fine, but that’s still not the definition of “pull” I was working with.

        Moreover, adding the restrictions we place on media corporations deeply complicates your view. Many of the same people who favor campaign contribution restrictions also favor restrictions on broadcast ownership.

        The question is whether YOU can more confidently say you are not brainwashed and have accurate beliefs than your counterpart, who would likely claim that his/her beliefs are perfectly sensible while yours are deranged.

        Maybe that’s the question to you, but to me this scenario just demonstrates why thought experiments asking me to consult with selves in alternate worlds is just an inherently problematic and suspect idea.

  • Allen

    Why do we recognize corporations as entities in our legal code? Is it so that they can engage in politics? Could we ever elect Microsoft as president?

    Why SHOULD we allow corporations to engage in political speech?

    If Bill Gates has something to say, let him say it. Let him speak for himself. As a single citizen, not as someone who represents the employees, shareholders, and indirectly even the customers of Microsoft.

    What is the history of corporations engaging in politics? Is it a good history? What positive and negative examples can we find looking back over the history of the corporation?

    Can we say that media outlets are a special type of business without introducing a fatal inconsistency?

    Isn’t something like the New York Times really more in the entertainment business than in the “politics” business?

    • lxm

      Could we ever elect Microsoft as President?

      Nicely put. Cuts right to the core of what’s wrong with corporate political action of any kind.

      I don’t see what the significance of this court case is. The horses have long ago left the barn. There are already millions and millions of corporate dollars flowing through our political system. Just look at the contributions of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries to our national political leaders. Do you think these dollars have no effect on the outcome of the health care debate? Whatever the decision here, the corporate dollars will continue to flow and will continue to have an outsized impact on political decisions. I do not think that the sine qua non of our political system should be the well being of corporations.

      Why libertarians refuse to see the threat posed by the huge and unbridled power of large corporations to our freedoms escapes me.

  • RPB

    The most effective and biggest voices have already taken control of government and persuaded them to change laws in deleterious ways: the FIRE industry (Financial, insurance, real estate)

    Is there any wonder who gains the most from easy money policies and asset bubbles and how those parties have engaged in regulatory capture?

    Reform campaign financing and curb lobbyism; that is the solution.

  • Matt

    Your argument is oddly divorced from contact with American history (or for that matter, the history of other democratic polities). Money talks. Concentrations of wealth can gain control of and corrupt the democratic process. The ban on direct corporate support of candidates is an attempt to prevent our democracy from devolving into a plutocracy. That’s been our politity’s natural weakness from the beginning. The sharp concentration of wealth we saw from the 1890s to the 1920s and again since the early 1980s owed to the seizure of the political process by monied interests more than it did to (ostensibly nonpolitical) economic of technological factors. The cheap conceit of libertarian arguments of this sort is that governments (democratic governments!) are the main constraint on freedom, the main concentration of power. The best reply remains this classic post:

  • Doug S.

    What’s the difference between a campaign contribution and a bribe?

    • Carl Shulman

      The bribe can be spent more easily on the personal consumption of the recipient.

    • One is legal; the other isn’t.

  • Jurisprudence should be lean and clear.
    Cause and Effect should constrain law.

    The word “corporation” derives from corpus, the Latin word for body, or a “body of people”. Entities which carried on business and were the subjects of legal rights were found in ancient Rome, and the Maurya Empire in ancient India.[6] In medieval Europe, churches became incorporated, as did local governments, such as the Pope and the City of London Corporation. The point was that the incorporation would survive longer than the lives of any particular member, existing in perpetuity. The alleged oldest commercial corporation in the world, the Stora Kopparberg mining community in Falun, Sweden, obtained a charter from King Magnus Eriksson in 1347. Many European nations chartered corporations to lead colonial ventures, such as the Dutch East India Company or the Hudson’s Bay Company, and these corporations came to play a large part in the history of corporate colonialism.

    Clearly this practice is thousands of years old. The corporation as legal entity predates the person.

    The question becomes on what authority can the state affect person-hood. The answer is very little if any at all. Therefore Using criminal law to constrain their behavior is problematic As abstractions corporations have no Innate or Intrinsic capacity for behavior.

    Only the behavior of Rational Mechanisms and Levers
    can be constrained.

    Corporations are constrained by corporate law. If you Want to limit corporate power then use corporate law to do so.

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