Elections, campaigning, voting; these are all creatures of the state. To the extent the state itself is illegitimate, it is wasted effort to debate the legitimacy of internal rules of an illegitimate entity (a bit like arguing over the moral distinction between thieves that pick locks vs those that break down doors). So discussions concerning whether the government should limit political donations to this amount or that amount is entirely academic; there is no right or wrong answer given the larger context that compelling all to accept the outcome of an election is the true affront to individual rights (that is, the right to choose with whom one will associate).

With that said, however, I would like to touch on a common philosophical misconception that has been reignited with the recent Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC. In this decision the Supreme Court struck down limits on total donation amounts to candidates and political committees (while retaining certain other limits). The predictable knee-jerk response then ensued from the progressive media outlets: Unrestricted giving means our democracy is for sale! More money in politics means only the well-funded candidates will win elections! Money is not speech! Ok, stop right there. The first two assertions are at least plausible (although plenty of examples abound where the more well-funded candidate lost), however denying the essential connection that money and speech have is to engage in intellectual dishonesty

What does the right to free speech entail? (Before I continue, for clarity’s sake “speech” is shorthand to describe any action that externalizes the thoughts or ideas of an individual). Does free speech mean we should be able to speak for free? No. It means that it is impermissible for anyone (which includes government) to aggressively interfere with an individual’s exercise of speech (assuming the speaker has not voluntarily agreed to limit that right under contract). Conversely it does not obligate anyone to assist an individual in his speech efforts. That is, speech is a negative right. If one wishes to spread their speech more efficiently, they may employ their own means (money, printing press, radio station, etc.) or they may ask others to assist them in their effort by providing them with those same means.

Speech is a means to an end. That is to say, we exercise speech in order to achieve some end. Means themselves often require other means to achieve them. For example, I buy gas (means) to use my car (means) to drive to work (means) to earn money (means) in order to buy food (means) to keep me alive (end). In a campaign the candidate’s end is to make the public aware of his candidacy and persuade them to cast their vote for him. This is done through speech from the candidate to the public. Speech is most efficiently disseminated using tools (print, radio, TV, etc) and those tools can often only be obtained via monetary trade. So, perhaps money is not literally speech in the same way that gasoline is not literally food, but in both cases the former is a direct link in the causal chain of means to achieve the latter end. To deny the significance of money as it relates to speech is to deny the legitimacy of utilizing any means to achieve some end.

For those concerned with the possible distorting effects of money in politics I would suggest ending the fixation on limiting money and rather focus instead on what the money is buying: power. If we commit to limiting the power of government over our lives, we will find the appeal of purchasing such impaired power likewise diminished.