Statists, particularly on the left, often use the phrase: “Money is not speech.”
Usually, it’s employed in political discourse as a pitch to keep opposing political ideas from “overwhelming” the population with opinions the would-be censors find abhorrent. It’s a phrase that’s been in greater use (along with its rhetorical corollary “corporations are not people”*) since the Citizens United decision in 2010.
But the phrase reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of both money and speech.
First, when discussing speech, as in “Freedom of Speech,” it must be understood as not merely referring to audible vocalizations of words. What is meant is “Freedom of Expression,” and people may express themselves not only through speaking, but also with the written word, art, film, dance, fashion, music, silent protest, etc.
And, sure, it can be said that money qua money is not necessarily itself speech. It is, however, a facilitator of speech.
For example, Jackson can stand at location X and speak out loud to all passersby. He would be free to express himself however he wishes. He can also yell or cup his hands around his mouth in order for his speech to reach more ears. After all, he feels that what he is sharing is important and would like the largest audience possible.
Now, what if there was a device that Jackson could hold to his lips to amplify his speech and have it reach a larger audience still?
It just so happens that such a device exists: a megaphone. So how could he acquire this device? He could try to gather the raw materials to first make the tools and producer goods necessary to build the device and, subsequently, build those tools. Then he’d gather the raw materials to make the plastics and wiring of the device itself. Then, after teaching himself how to do so, he would mold the plastic, create and build a battery for power, and finally assemble the megaphone.
But Jackson is a fisherman. He lacks the requisite skills to build such a device, and teaching himself such skills would take time away from what he does well (and keeps his family fed). Luckily, there is a man in town, Ferguson, who specializes in such things. But Ferguson is not Jackson’s slave: Jackson cannot force Ferguson to give up his time, labor, and raw materials in order to build a megaphone for him. However, Jackson, as a fisherman, can offer Ferguson some fish in return for the megaphone. This is called direct exchange, or barter.
Ferguson, though, has no need for fish (the improbability of finding a trading partner who is desiring exactly what someone is willing to trade in direct exchange is called a “double coincidence of wants”). Yet he does want butter and salt, and is willing to take three pounds of each in return for his megaphone. So Jackson, before he can acquire the megaphone, must first acquire butter and salt and thus engage in indirect exchange to meet his goals. He heads into town and immediately finds many people willing to trade salt for fish, so he makes the trade that is most in his favor (with whoever is willing to accept the least amount of fish for his desired amount of salt). He also finds two different people willing to part with their excess butter, but neither want fish. One dairy farmer wants two pounds of bacon for his three pounds of butter, and the other dairy farmer is willing to part with three pounds of butter in exchange for 12 fresh eggs. So off Jackson goes in search of eggs and bacon, and to find out which one (12 eggs or two pounds of bacon) would require him to give up the fewest fish. When he eventually completes all his trades, he can then finally trade for the megaphone.
And if Jackson wished to disseminate his speech through flyers, he’d have the same options: he can either build an axe, chop some trees, create wood pulp, make paper, make pencils (an impossible process to do by himself), write on every flyer, etc. - or he can trade with the man at the paper mill and the woman with the printing press through the same series of complex exchanges outlined above.
As you can plainly see, despite being superior to direct exchange and its inherent limitations, this entire process of indirect exchange can be clumsy and complicated and uses up much time (the scarcest of resources) in finding the right trading partners and the best ratios (or prices). This is where money comes in.
In the example above, Jackson was able to trade for salt very quickly. This is because salt is more easily tradable, has higher marketability. Unlike chandeliers and wagon wheels, salt can be more easily transported and has more universal demand. Unlike cows and megaphones, it’s much easier to use in varying denominations and to make change. Unlike eggs and fish, it doesn’t have a limited shelf life before it spoils. For these and other reasons, people were much more likely to trade for salt, even if they didn’t need it. For them, salt wasn’t a consumer good (a good meant for direct use or consumption) or a producer good (a good intended to use as a tool or material to create a consumer good), it was a store of value and a relatively stable commodity that served to facilitate exchange. It was desired, not for its direct utility but in its capacity to be traded in the future due to its superior marketability, divisibility, stability, etc. So if salt, in Jackson’s economy of indirect exchange, becomes widely accepted as a medium of exchange, it then, in turn, becomes money.
Murray Rothbard explained what makes money:
“[J]ust as in nature there is a great variety of skills and resources, so there is a variety in the marketability of goods. Some goods are more widely demanded than others, some are more divisible into smaller units without loss of value, some more durable over long periods of time, some more transportable over large distances. All of these advantages make for greater marketability. It is clear that in every society, the most marketable goods will be gradually selected as the media for exchange. As they are more and more selected as media, the demand for them increases because of this use, and so they become even more marketable. The result is a reinforcing spiral: more marketability causes wider use as a medium which causes more marketability, etc. Eventually, one or two commodities are used as general media—in almost all exchanges—and these are called money.
Historically, many different goods have been used as media: tobacco in colonial Virginia, sugar in the West Indies, salt in Abyssinia, cattle in ancient Greece, nails in Scotland, copper in ancient Egypt, and grain, beads, tea, cowrie shells, and fishhooks. Through the centuries, two commodities, gold and silver, have emerged as money in the free competition of the market, and have displaced the other commodities. Both are uniquely marketable, are in great demand as ornaments, and excel in the other necessary qualities. In recent times, silver, being relatively more abundant than gold, has been found more useful for smaller exchanges, while gold is more useful for larger transactions. At any rate, the important thing is that whatever the reason, the free market has found gold and silver to be the most efficient moneys.
The establishment of a money on the market enormously increases the scope for specialization and division of labor, immensely widens the market for every product, and makes possible a society on a civilized productive level. Not only are the problems of coincidence of wants and indivisibility of goods eliminated, but individuals can now construct an ever-expanding edifice of remote stages of production to arrive at desired goods. Intricate and remote stages of production are now possible, and specialization can extend to every part of a production process as well as to the type of good produced. Thus, an automobile producer can sell an automobile in exchange for the money, e.g., butter or gold, and then exchange the gold partly for labor, partly for steel, partly for chrome, partly for rubber tires, etc. The steel producers can exchange the gold partly for labor, partly for iron, partly for machines, etc. Then the various laborers, landowners, etc., who receive the gold in the production process can use it as a medium to purchase eggs, automobiles, or clothing, as they desire.
The whole pattern of a modern society is thus built on the use of money…”
So when someone claims that “money is not speech,” what they are arguing for is limitations to be placed on using money to advance and promulgate speech or expression (usually with regards to their political adversaries). And, by doing so, they are ultimately arguing for limitations on speech itself. The solution to “bad” speech is more speech. Stifling speech by demonizing money only serves those who can afford to jump through the loopholes and, counter to expectations, buy themselves favors and exceptions from the would-be censors.
Money enables human cooperation and advancement; it allows for specialization and promotion above a primitive existence. To assign this tool of human progress nefarious characteristics simply demonstrates historical and economic ignorance.