By now, most folks in the tech world have learned about the controversy surrounding a donation to an anti-gay-marriage organization by Mozilla’s new CEO. The controversy around that is being robustly discussed elsewhere, but it’s made me think hard about the issue of “clean money” and the conflict between transparency and anonymity.
I may down on this by the end of this post, but let me start from the a position of individual liberty: It’s a violation of a person’s rights to have the government surveil and record acts of political speech, which includes donating money to chosen political causes. If I purchased $1000 worth of paper, markers and sticks, and made a pile of yard signs to support a cause or candidate and then gave those to passers by, should I be required to register this act with a government agency? What if I paid my out-of-work friend to help me? What if I gave $1000 to a like-minded campaigner to do it for me?
At the other end of this spectrum is the corrupt situation we’re in today: Money that supports political campaigns comes in no small part from corporate special interests, and it’s not easy for a voter to understand where politicians get their money, and thus who is going to have influence about how our government functions.
Maybe the solution is to draw a hard line between corporation and individuals…or so the thinking goes. I question this rationale for several reasons. If I want to open a issue-oriented hot dog stand and put my profits towards a political candidate, what right does anybody have to tell me that I can’t do that? Large corporations may not be hot dog stands, but they are by definition good at acting in their own financial best interests, and even if you could convince me that there’s a moral way to disallow corporate speech, I don’t think that there’s a practical way to do it: Money finds a way of getting whether it “needs” to go despite rules to the contrary. If corporations can’t speak, the money will find a way to things that can…I think it’s a hopeless game of cat and mouse, and frankly I’m glad the game was lost more quickly with the Citizens United decision because it means we might be able to work on a real solution more quickly instead of just band-aids.
This is a classic battle between a real-world problem that desperately needs to be fixed and a natural right that is at risk of being violated if you try.
I’m inclined to think that honoring the rights of individuals to anonymously speak is worth going to great lengths to protect, and I therefore think that the right thing for our country to do is to adopt public financing of elections…not because it’s going to result in a radical change of who’s in office in the short term, but because it means that those who do hold office don’t have the same incentives they would otherwise have to please their campaign funders.
And let’s not forget to mention changing our voting system.