September 16, 2012

Courage or cowardice

Colin Read

---- — One of the most redeeming institutions that flows from our Constitution and its amendments is freedom of speech. However, this freedom should not be free.

Our forefathers created a marketplace for ideas because they believed in the value of full information. Every idea can be put out there in the context of who is speaking and with the beauty of what is said.

It would be reassuring to have confidence in a message solely for its content, and not because of its source. However, this simplistic view is like witnessing the Mona Lisa through a veil.

For instance, do you believe there is any difference in one extolling the beauty of capitalism if she was a CEO of an investment bank or if he was the leader of the Communist party? Clearly, the messenger has to be part of the message. I believe our founding fathers contemplated this.

Now, though, with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, anyone can speak loudly without indicating who they are or how they stand to gain. Such anonymity is cowardice. Ads in the silly season become avenues for cheap shots.

I also see this cowardice in Speakout, where writers want to get something off their chest or convince us of the truth as they see it. They seem to have some sort of ax to grind. Their message is almost always negative. They rarely encourage the best from us, and, they don’t tell us who they are.

Many find Speakout tedious and disturbing, but we are compelled to read the comments because of the same instinct that forces us to witness the aftermath of a train wreck.

While those who take advantage of Citizens United do so at a great financial price, the Speakout writers, or anonymous bloggers, try to influence public opinion without cost.

Such a benefit/cost ratio encourages communications cowardice. It is like the sports fan in the stands belittling the athlete on the field. Few would have the courage if they had to face the subject of their torments. Such commentary without consequence erodes civility as anonymous messagers say or write things that they would not in person.

I can imagine the rare situation when anonymity is necessary. Maybe the speaker has been muzzled or victimized. Perhaps critics would suffer hardship or retaliation if they were identified as the source of a criticism we all should hear. However, very few conversational cowards are in this category.

Some of these critics are the same individuals who wonder why Wall Street does not act more responsibly, or why our leaders play political games as the nation is held hostage.

Perhaps, if we all had the courage of our convictions, we could allow the marketplace for ideas to truly work. After all, markets work because purveyors offer something, at some cost, to create value for themselves.

Imagine a world in

which anyone can say anything anonymously. Mean-spirited and self-promoting commentary would become rampant. We would find it difficult to judge the message from the character of the messenger. We would find ourselves in a world described by George Akerlof, in a paper well known among

economists entitled “The Market for Lemons.” With thoughtful debate replaced, we would all be poorer.

To sign our names to our political messages on television, to our Speakouts, or even to our comments on the Internet imposes some responsibility and affords context for readers.

Maybe we should just ignore anonymous commentators. Cheap shots drown out the messages of those with the courage of their convictions. In this political season, as we are barraged by messages costing millions of dollars, or Speakouts and posts costing nothing, wouldn’t it be nice if people had the courage not to hide?

Colin Read is a contributor to and has published eight books on finance and economics with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Continue the discussion at