Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and Political Philosophy

Speaking of non-ideal theory (or ideal theory in less than ideal contexts)… I am curious to hear whether my fellow public reasoners believe that the recent US Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance should have any impact on our work as political philosophers.  To be clear, I don’t mean to start a debate over whether or not the Supreme Court ruled correctly, or whether campaign donations are speech, or even whether corporations are people who have rights like you and me (though I do have opinions on such matters).  Instead, I want to consider whether the American legal landscape should guide our work on theories justice or democracy.

Here’s what I have in mind. Liberal political thought, to this point, has largely ignored a set of concerns that were central to many Labor movements, which might be called concerns over “workplace democracy” or what is sometimes called “democratic corporatism.”  With some notable exceptions (Pateman, Gould, Mansbridge), frequently offered by those operating in a Marxist framework, political philosophers have instead focused on issues of distribution or issues of legitimacy in terms of public reasons or political dialogue.  Relatively little attention has been paid to whether a society with profound inequalities in wealth, where corporations are dominant players in the political landscape, can be meaningfully democratic. There are a number of reasons for this omission, I think, including the assumptions that (1) if distribution problems are taken care of the rest will take care of itself or (2) the ideal society will have stringent campaign finance laws, public election financing, or some other way of insulating the political sphere from the economic sphere.  Given the economic and, following the Supreme Court Ruling, political-legal realities in the US for the indefinite future, I no longer believe that such assumptions will do.

Instead, I believe that if corporations are going to be dominant players in the political landscape for the indefnite future, more work needs to be done to consider whether such organizations need to be more democratic.  Are CEOs or Boards of Directors the “free speakers” for corporations, at liberty to use corporate money to influence election outcomes and policy debates?  Do campaign contributions require the approval of the majority of shareholders?  Do they require the approval of employees? There are of course reasons to favor discretionary decision making by executives – taking a vote for all decisions may leave firms unable to respond efficiently to market demands. Nonetheless, there are also substantial reasons to provide protections for workers or stockholders from what may be arbitrary or self-servingly indefensible decisions made by a board of directors. Also, the need for such rapid, discretionary decision-making with regard to political contributions is far from clear.  Treating corporations, in theory or in practice, as individuals with a right to free speech completely ignores these issues.

Later in his career Rawls himself more clearly distinguishes a property-owning democracy from the idea of a welfare state. A recent symposium in the Journal of Social Philosophy considers the implications of this distinction, in a way that is frequently relevant to the issue at hand. Given Citizens v. FEC, however, I believe that more work on the moral and political implications of corporate involvement in contemporary politics, and the ways in which workplace democracy can further democratic equality without unduly sacrificing market competitiveness, is necessary.  It is no longer plausible (if it ever was) in the American context, to believe that campaign finance law will insulate the political sphere from the economic sphere, such that inequalities in one need not entail inequalities in the other.

Any thoughts?

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2 Responses to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and Political Philosophy

  1. Kevin Vallier says:

    Josh,

    You say:

    Liberal political thought, to this point, has largely ignored a set of concerns that were central to most Labor movements, which might be called concerns over “workplace democracy” or what is sometimes called “democratic corporatism.” With some notable exceptions (Pateman, Gould, Mansbridge), frequently offered by those operating in a Marxist framework, political philosophers have instead focused on issues of distribution or issues of legitimacy in terms of public reasons or political dialogue. Relatively little attention has been paid to whether a society with profound inequalities in wealth, where corporations are dominant players in the political landscape, can be meaningfully democratic.

    Sorry to quibble, but I don’t think this is true. Mill, to give one prominent example, was a strong proponent of worker cooperatives. In fact, many radical classical liberals of the nineteenth century were skeptical of the wage system (Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker are some American cases) and worker cooperatives were widely discussed.

    The worker cooperative idea largely arose from worries about the effects of the wage system, however, not from concerns about corporate domination of campaigns.

    Also, Tom Christiano has a nice article on this matter in the current issue of Social Philosophy and Policy: The Uneasy Relationship Between Democracy and Capital.

    As for the broader issue, what would be the reason for worrying about workers being left out of the loop when deciding whether corporate money should go to causes they don’t support? If the idea that because they contributed wealth to the firm that they thereby acquire an entitlement to a portion of decision-making within the firm?

    I’d be interested to see such a principle worked out because the formulations I’m imagining seem to have odd consequences. For instance, if the idea is that when X contributes utility to productive venture Y that X thereby acquires a share in the utility produced by productive venture Y, one might wonder how a wage system of any kind could be justified.

    Also, if workers add to the income of bosses while being paid a wage for their services, do they thereby acquire a right to dictate how the boss spends his income? Or is the idea that they somehow acquire title in the means of producing the wealth and so they thereby should have a say in decision-making? It’s hard to see how such a claim would go.

    One more thing:

    It is no longer plausible (if it ever was) in the American context, to believe that campaign finance law will insulate the political sphere from the economic sphere.

    Is this really a good idea? Isn’t the idea to insulate the political sphere from unequal influence from the economic sphere? Of course economic interests should affect politics, but perhaps we’d want equality of impact (though Dworkin raises some concerns about equality of impact in Sovereign Virtue).

  2. Kevin, Thanks for the Christiano pointer, I will give it a read. Yes, of course the reason why many support campaign finance regulations or public financing is to prevent inequalities in economics from creating democratic inequalities (or at least to mitigate such inequalities). I have clarified this in the text.

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