Imprecise language may not be the root of all evil, but it runs a close second. The ability to communicate may be the most basic characteristic that makes us human. If we lose that capability, all sorts of unintended consequences ensue, à la the Tower of Babel. Which brings us to the recent US Supreme Court decision, McCutcheon vs FEC, overturning limits on aggregate federal election funding. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote “The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.” In this ruling the exchange of money has become synonymous with freedom of speech and of the press.
Imprecise speech is sometimes related to tendencies people have to overgeneralize or to use euphemisms so as not to offend. But it can also be used to advance an agenda or just plain distort the truth. Just as atheism is not a religion but the lack thereof, and the fact that there is a theory of gravity does not mean that gravity is just a theory, so money is not speech. Speech refers to words coming out of people’s mouths, and, by the slightest stretch, those same words written down. When the Supreme Court in 1989 decided that burning a flag was a form of speech, the floodgates of overgeneralization were opened. I am not against protecting non-verbal and non-written forms of expression under the law. I think they should be protected. I can understand that it’s a lot of trouble to write a new law saying art or music or flag-burning is a protected form of expression akin to speech and expect it to get passed. It’s a lot easier just to interpret the existing First Amendment to cover these particular cases. But once starting down this path, it’s hard to know where it stops. Language becomes devoid of meaning. Fuzzy language begets fuzzy math. One plus one can equal three, a corporation is a person, and the exchange of money is a form of speech, protected under the First Amendment.
In the US Constitution it is apparent the founding fathers understood that money was not the same thing as speech. The Constitution talks a lot more about money than it does free speech and does so in different contexts. Words for money (money, commerce, revenue, tax, coin, dollar, treasury) are used 30 times in the Constitution. Words for speech (speech, debate) are used only 3 times. In fact, the First Amendment is pretty much all the Constitution says about speech: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” It’s not as if the founding fathers ever confused the two concepts. Perhaps the founding fathers would have responded to this Supreme Court decision equating money and speech with the immortal words of Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Now that money and speech are the same, so that giving vast sums of money to politicians is just a form of protected free speech, not implying quid pro quo, I wonder if our beloved politicians, the incorruptible beneficiaries of this largesse, will ease up on the laws that prohibit gifts to others. Maybe we doctors will again be able to receive a free pen from a drug company without the suspicion of quid pro quo. After this Supreme Court decision, how can the pols make laws regulating any donations of money or goods to any professionals, when they themselves are not subject to such regulation?
It may be that I am not crediting the court with enough guile. There may be method to their madness. Perhaps they came to this decision just to show the reductio ad absurdum of equating money and speech, with the intent to force us finally to change our non-democratic plutocracy into something more equitable. It would be wonderful if this decision effected changes in campaign financing and lobbying laws. Otherwise we are sliding down a very slippery slope indeed. If the Court has such an agenda I would be surprised. It appears this latest decision is just a natural consequence to the logic (or lack thereof) of the Citizens United ruling.
The mechanics of elections are the foundation of how our government works. Why should any 9 people (let alone people like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas) have such an influence on this fundamental mechanism? But where is the impetus to change the system when those who have the ability to change it, our elected officials, have nothing to gain and everything to lose?
So that’s why I would vote for imprecise language as the first runner up in the competition for the root of all evil. The winner? Money, of course.