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.