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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

When Free Speech, Isn't Free: How Forced Political Speech Subverts Freedom

You have the right to speech and expression.  Free speech and expression.

You also have the right not to speak -- sometimes a much more powerful statement is made with silence.

But what happens when your money is used, without your consent, to fund political campaigns?

And isn't your voice -- including your expression through deliberate non-participation -- diluted or silenced when you are compelled to speak (with your money) even when you don't want to?

There's a new Seattle, WA plan to give each voter $100 in vouchers (four vouchers in $25 denominations) which can be given out to select qualifying candidates for city offices, who can then redeem the vouchers for real cash for their campaigns. The money for these vouchers comes from tax receipts. 

New York City has had a similar plan for years, whereby it gives candidates for city office up to six times the amount of qualifying contributions. The difference in New York City is that the "matching funds" go straight to the candidate. 

This raises the question of whether the public is being forced to engage in political speech, because it is forced to fund it. And a system which issues vouchers is designed to encourage people to "spend" the vouchers, meaning to underwrite candidates to whom they would very likely not give a dollar of their own money.

The movement towards compelled political speech is in line with the cries, from self-styled good-government groups over the years, to address declining voter participation rates. Those rates have declined, largely because the denominator -- the number of people registered -- has increased as it has become increasingly easy to register. (Some would argue that it is way too easy, that it is an invitation to fraud, etc.)  Yet the constant is the numerator, the top number, representing people actually interested in civic affairs and motivated to vote pretty much on their own.

Some good-government groups are run by people who make a decent living creating and then publicizing the problem of "low voter participation" as a way to raise funds for their pet non-profits. (Hey! Who said there wasn't money in politics?!) But that should not be confused with the existence of a real problem, or the absence of one.

Some candidates will complain. But these will be the voices of unearned and frustrated ambition, complaining because government won't clear the path for them to realize -- with as little opposition as possible -- the outcome (i.e., winning) to which they believe they are entitled.

To them, I argue: You have the right to run for office, but not the right to take our money to do so, nor do you have the right to rig the system so you can do the second in order to achieve the first.

And the gentle inducements, meant to play on the guilt which is becoming so common in Western society today, and its associated, manufactured need to receive the approval of others (in turn inducing a mania of efforts to seek and "earn" it), all point to forced speech, forced expression, amounting to squeezing money out of us like toothpaste from the tube, to further the desired outcomes for a few self-promoters. 

When you are compelled to speak because you are paying for it, and the government is trying to induce you (the gentle form, feeling like persuasion when it is really a gentle-feeling form of coercion) to participate by making you feel that your own tax dollars will be wasted - because waste is a bad thing, didn't you know -- if you don't "speak" and use those special-purpose vouchers, is that free speech?

If you're a Seattle taxpayer, aren't you being forced to speak? Aren't you being forced -- er, persuaded -- to give money to some candidate? And worse, it's probably a candidate who cannot or will not work hard enough to raise funds on his own -- that is, the candidate is probably someone with little to no support from neighbors, friends, and thus really has no business running for an elected public office?

And a graver question is this: Isn't your voice diluted when we increase the number of participating voters, and candidates, through this soft form of compulsion?

It's bad enough to drown out the voices and votes of the concerned, self-motivated voters with the voices of the unconcerned, the irresponsible and, in some cases, the outright corrupt who will buy and sell their vouchers. 

That's voter dilution. And that is the antithesis of the First Amendment protections against government encroachment on what the Supreme Court itself has often called a "core constitutional right."

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