“Money is speech”

February 1, 2010

In point #4 of my list of Glenn Greenwald’s arguments regarding “free speech”, I quote Greenwald’s argument regarding what may be called the “money is speech” doctrine. I cannot find a concise explicit statement of this doctrine online, but I think it is fair to say that it says that

money can be used to help disseminate ideas and therefore its use in this way must be “unrestricted” in the same sense that “speech” (dissemination of ideas) is.

Greenwald’s argument at point #4 shows that indeed money can be used (or maybe to some extent must be used) to disseminate ideas. Therefore an outright ban on the use of money in disseminating a certain idea would be a very powerful way to hinder the dissemination of that idea. This is definitely true – indeed, it is a truism. The notion that money is a useful tool for disseminating ideas can be stretched much further to produce another truism: money is such a useful tool for disseminating ideas that a wealthy person or organization is at an inherent advantage in disseminating their ideas over a person or organization without access to large amounts of money. (A contradictory idea – that ideas gain support based solely on their values irrespective of the resources that are used to back them and thus ideas that are widely believed must be valuable – is also sometimes voiced by interested parties, but this idea can be safely, and usually is, dismissed.)

None of this would come as a surprise to those who argue that “money is not speech”. Indeed it is the latter, stronger statement that is the reason for their objection to the “money is speech” doctrine. The “money is not speech” claim is not the negation of the claim of usefulness of money in disseminating ideas, but to the claim that use of money should be “unrestricted”, in the same way that the mere act of speaking or writing should be “unrestricted”.

Indeed, the second part of the “money is speech” doctrine, “therefore the use of money to disseminate ideas must be ‘unrestricted'”, is clearly a non-sequitur. The use of the jaw muscles is very useful in disseminating ideas – that does not mean that people cannot be ‘restricted’ from biting their political opponents, even if this would somehow be useful in disseminating the message being transmitted.

Thus, while Greenwald’s point is certainly true,  it quite plainly does not imply what he tries to use it to imply.

The underlying problem with Greenwald’s line of argument is the failure to distinguish between the activities associated with forming and uttering ideas and those activities aimed at garnering attention for a message or idea. This failure is facilitated by the use of the term “speech” in a sense that covers both types of activities (“wide sense speech”) – a conflation that may be deliberate on the side of some interested parties, but is probably quite often inadvertent.

While it is true that to a large extent forming and uttering ideas is done with the objective of achieving a certain level of attention, the two activities have some very different characteristics making their conflation a source of confusion.

1. Creation and uttering of ideas is about the production of ideas. Garnering attention is about the consumption of ideas.

2. Creation and uttering of ideas requires a relatively modest amount of resources. Once the resources needed for leisure, learning and communications have been obtained, access to more resources adds very little to the ability to create and utter ideas. When it comes to garnering attention, on the other hand, additional resources translate to higher effectiveness – with almost no saturation point.

3. The creation of new ideas can be diminished or stimulated. Depending on various societal arrangements, the total number and novelty of ideas generated by members of the society can be very different. The total pool of attention resources, on the other hand, is inelastic. Paying attention to one idea comes to a large extent at the expense of paying attention to other ideas. Thus, while creation of ideas is a cooperative activity, garnering attention is more or less a zero sum game.

Those differences make the notion of having a single set of rules apply to both types of activities an unreasonable objective. A general rule against laws impeding the creation of new ideas is a good idea (implementing such a rule would create a very different mass media structure than the one we have today, and indeed affect society in many other fundamental ways). A rule against ‘restricting’ attention gathering is not only not a good idea, however, it is a logical impossibility. Attention garnering is always restricted by the limited total amount of attention available. Setting up rules regulating attention garnering could change the distribution of attention to various ideas, but it cannot change the total amount of attention garnered.

People and organizations which have the resources to garner a disproportional share of the attention in society like to imply that their ability to do so is sacrosanct and that limiting it should not be allowed, despite the fact that it is the public’s considered opinion that it should be limited (an opinion that was formed, by the way, despite those people’s power to disseminate their ideas). There is no reason for the majority, whose “wide sense speech” is diminished by the power of the elite, to accept such fallacies.

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3 Responses to ““Money is speech””


  1. […] form of the government granting exclusivity for the use of mass media to certain parties, and, as I pointed out before, since attention is a finite resource, restrictions on the use of this resource are unavoidable. It […]


  2. […] #2, I find that much of the groundwork has been laid out in my treatment of points #1, #3, and #4, so the analysis is […]


  3. […] or authority to arrange – is separate from the activity of broadcasting ideas. I argued before that the latter activity – essentially engaging in a competition for the attention of large […]

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