For those of you who don’t know, I spent the better part of two decades working in email marketing. I think Scott Adams described marketing best: “we don’t screw the customer; we hold them down while the salespeople screw them.” That being said, I did (mostly) enjoy my time as a marketer, and I became more than a little familiar with a little company named Salesforce. If you’ve never heard of them that’s not surprising; they’re what’s referred to as a B2B company (that’s “business to business”), and their products are used to manage and run e-commerce across the nation.
Why that’s particularly relevant is because of a recent change in their acceptable use policy. Salesforce is now in the business of driving social policy as well as sales. While I might personally disagree with their stance, I want to get out in front and applaud them for making this move. I would love to see more companies, particularly big companies, making moves like this, for a few different reasons.
First it appeals to my libertarian desire for private action over government action. Yes, I have come around to accepting that not all government is bad, but I still believe that government should be the answer of last resort, not the first thing we try and then we turn to private solutions only after every possible governmental approach has been tried and failed. Also, there are a few common misconceptions that need to be addressed regarding private actors versus government action.
The big one that bothers me the most is the idea that somehow private actors can violate your right to free speech. Let’s take a look at the text of the First Amendment, shall we? “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Yes, I can see pretty clearly in there were it says that “Facebook shall not delete your posts because reasons.” The government cannot legally censor you (aside from a few exceptions). Private actors are not required to provide you with a platform for your crazy. In fact, that would be a violation of the First Amendment (freedom of association).
How does that apply in the case of Salesforce and their terms of service? By doing business with Salesforce, you are voluntarily associating with them, and vice versa. Their terms of service are, quite literally, the terms under which they are willing to associate with you. Don’t like it? Fine. Don’t do business with them. Nobody is forcing you to. It’s a free market. So long as Salesforce doesn’t use their market dominance in an anti-competitive way there is no issue (and by the way, that has nothing to do with the First Amendment, that’s standard antitrust stuff, which last I checked is justified under the commerce clause; but I could be wrong). And let’s not even try to drag the Second Amendment into it. I don’t care if they prohibit you from selling guns or gardenias using their software, the point is the same: they are not the government, and nobody is forcing you to do business with them.
That’s not to say there aren’t any First Amendment issues to be concerned with here, it’s just that nobody seems to be focusing on the relevant party, by which I mean Salesforce. Anybody remember a little case known as Citizens United? Yes, I know liberals love to hate on that case, but every dark cloud and so on. In this instance, it’s relevant because Salesforce as a legal entity has rights. The right to free speech. The right to free association. The right to not be compelled to provide a service to someone who will use it in a way that they deem inappropriate. Note that this last point is ethically in line with the baker who refused to serve the gay couple in Colorado. Whether liberal or conservative, you don’t get to pick and choose who gets to express their moral beliefs through their business just because you happen to agree with them. The law applies to everyone equally or it is worthless (which says more about the law de facto than de jure).
This has been a particularly loud year for the “get money out of politics” crowd. Certainly the Citizens United decision didn’t do much for them, but I have to admit I’ve never understood the big push to get money out of politics in the first place. Setting aside jokes about an honest politician being one who stays bought, the reasoning behind trying to get money out of politics seems to be, as I understand it, that rich people will simply buy influence and we lesser folk will simply be ignored.
I’d like to explore how that works two ways. First, let’s consider a world in which we don’t allow anyone to donate at all to political campaigns. After all, money doesn’t equal speech, right? So no need to let anyone donate to any candidate. But then does that mean candidates only get to spend their own money? How does that stop rich people from just buying elections directly? Unless we want to stop them from spending their own money to express their own personal views, and that’s a case where I don’t think I’m conflating money with speech, I’m conflating “speech” with “speech”.
And what about the newspapers? Do we silence them as well? Do the editorial boards get to keep endorsing the candidates of their choice? Or do they have to rely on silly work-arounds, perhaps offering “report cards” for each candidate on the issues, making it clear that one candidate gets straight “A”s and another nothing but failing marks, but we’re not endorsing anyone! Either way, what’s to stop the wealthy or corporations from buying the newspapers and TV networks (like they haven’t already) and pushing the agenda of their choice (sounds like a pretty foxy idea, wish I had thought of that…)?
So if we can’t shut out the rich and the news, do we only shut out “the lower classes”? That’s what we’ve been trying to avoid, isn’t it? Then perhaps the alternative is to simply allow anyone who wants to donate to contribute as much money as they want, but we put it all into one big pot of money, and then the money gets distributed evenly to anyone who wants some. Aside from the question of “who’s a legitimate candidate” (that’s like defining legitimate rape), even if you managed to answer that you’d end up with money from a dedicated feminist supporting Todd Akin and money from a neo-Nazi going to support Al Sharpton. Public financing of campaigns is basically the same idea only worse: people don’t even get to decide if they want to play (or pay) at all.
The other problem with the “big pot o’ money” approach is the issue of bundling for impact. Sure politicians care what you say, as long as your opinion comes wrapped in a check, and the bigger the check the bigger your opinion, which is what started us down the whole path in the first place. If you don’t believe that, then you should have no problem with rich people and corporations donating as much as they want to any politician at any time, because it doesn’t matter. If you do believe it, then you are faced with the issue of lots and lots of little people trying to get their voices heard individually… or gathering together as one to have some real impact. Sure, the rich people can do the same thing, but they don’t need to, or at least, they don’t have as much need to. So what you end up with is a classic Catch-22: either money doesn’t influence politics, in which case we don’t need laws to stop money from being in politics, or money does influence politics… in which case we don’t need laws to stop money from being in politics. When you hear a politician calling for “getting money out of politics”, it’s usually one of two major choices: an incumbent who benefits over challengers from “campaign finance reform”, or some “outsider candidate” who is having trouble raising money. Like anything else, check the incentives before you go thinking this is altruism or any sense of “for the public good”.
Ever since I can remember, money and politics have gone together like sex and teenagers: “it’s a problem”, “it’s an epidemic”, “it’s ruining our society”, and as far as I can tell from my own limited experience, it’s a non-issue. As best as I can tell the real fear isn’t that people will make a choice they didn’t want to make, or (like this never happened) an uniformed choice, the real concern is that people will make the wrong choice. By what standard? Well, that’s really a matter of opinion, isn’t it? When I hear someone calling for campaign finance reform, what I most often hear them really saying is “other people are idiots but I’m not.”