Weekend commentary: Two stories of speech, money, and power

Within the space of week, two commentaries have been published that highlight some strange ideas of how democracy and markets work and how fragile freedom of speech can be.

Robert Reich, former Labor secretary under President Clinton, complains that “Big Money” folks won’t open up their wallets for him.

He notes that a college president invited him to give a lecture that the school’s board of trustees would be attending. According to Reich, the president requested: “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t criticize Wall Street”—because several of the trustees were investment bankers.

Reich then relates the story of non-profit group devoted to voting rights that decided it would not launch a campaign against big money in politics for fear of alienating the group’s wealthy donors.

He wraps up his op-ed by suggesting that museums of science and natural history are being influenced by energy companies and—of course—the Koch brothers.  Reich argues that this is because “such institutions don’t want to bite hands that feed them.”

As the saying goes: He who pays the piper calls the tune. Yet Reich seems surprised and outraged that people won’t pay for tune they don’t want to hear.

A few days after Reich’s piece made the rounds, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Pepperdine professor Pete Peterson regarding a Democratic congressman’s abusive campaign against seven academics who have challenged some of the conventional wisdom regarding climate change.

The congressman’s office arranged additional pressure by notifying national and local media that these professors were under “investigation.” On the day the letters went out, the Washington Post blared: “House Dems: Did Big Oil seek to sway scientists in climate debate?”

The congressman’s campaign is a stark contrast to Reich’s complaints about “big money” donors.

Reich is upset that donors won’t financially support a message that they disagree with. But, that’s a fundamental principle of free speech, and a clear demonstration that money is speech. In contrast, the congressman is abusing the power of his office in an attempt to stifle speech that he disagrees with.

In the marketplace of ideas, the soft power of financial support is superior to harsh power of coercion.