Political speech is about respect

I’m just working through my thoughts on the recent Supreme Court decision to strike down limits on campaign contributions. My thoughts came together in reaction to a recent “tweetstorm” by Marc Andreesen, the famous venture capitalist.

His framing of the debate was essentially that we should trust people to make the best voting decisions for themselves regardless of who’s controlling the information flowing through various media

I’ll let you work through his interpretation if you want; I think his interpretation flattens, and isn’t really representative of, the real debate so I won’t elaborate on it or critique it all here, but I will focus on one thing: his focus on influence as the key point. When I worked through how I thought about the issue, that wasn’t what moved the needle for me. For me, leveling the playing field in political speech is about respect.

The way I think about it is this: imagine you’re part of a small community that makes decisions collectively, by a simple vote, with the opportunity for everyone to speak their mind around a table before votes are cast.

Could it ever be fair to allow the wealthiest among this group to speak for more time than the others? Obviously not. In this sort of gathering, it would be disrespectful, and would never be allowed in the room. This illustrates why political speech (the debate before the vote) as a whole ought to be protected, and we should not allow single groups to utterly dominate the conversation. It’s disrespectful to those who don’t have the means to participate, regardless of whether or not there is any unfair influence.

Now, obviously national debates are not the same as boardroom-style conversations. But I believe the argument still holds by the same logic that Warren Buffett uses when thinking about his relationship with other owners of the businesses he invests in, as well as Berkshire Hathaway.

In many ways, fellow stockholders in a public corporation are a lot like fellow citizens; you don’t know each other, but you have a common interest in the health of the company (or country), and you make decisions through a form of representative democracy.

So what’s the best way to think of these anonymous people? As Buffett says, in his “owners manual”:

Although our form is corporate, our attitude is partnership. Charlie Munger and I think of our shareholders as owner-partners, and of ourselves as managing partners. … We hope you visualize yourself as a part owner of a business that you expect to stay with indefinitely, much as you might if you owned a farm or apartment house in partnership with members of your family.

This “scaling down” of how you think about interacting with anonymous groups of other people is enormously helpful in properly attaching human values to debates about how large, anonymous societies interact with each other.