A Few More Thoughts on Citizen's United

A friend of mine from Princeton days writes:

... and you seem in favor of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs the FEC, I was wondering how you feel about being a customer or supplier or competitor of large businesses who can spend far more than your business to influence the rules of the game.

From what I read, I am sure you have a compelling answer, but I would be scared to death. (Maybe that's why I work for a large corporation [Target] instead of attempting to run my own business.)

I thought this was a pretty good question, and I answered:

  1. I try hard not to make utilitarian arguments to Constitutional and rights issues.  As an example, I am sure we might have less crime if the police were empowered to incarcerate anyone they wanted without trial, but we don't do it that way.
  2. I worry most about corporate lobbying (e.g. by Immelt at GE) and this is unaffected by this ruling - it was legal before and after.   This decision allows corporate advertising, which is public and visible, which I can at least see and react to, as opposed to back room deal making.
  3. Libertarians certainly worry about your question, and why many of us fear that what we are creating in this country is a European-style corporate state, rather than socialism.  To a libertarian, the answer is not less speech, but less government power to pick winners and losers in commerce.


  1. ArtD0dger:

    It takes a pretty hard-boiled cynicism to equate spending to broadcast a message that convinces the public with spending to "influence the rules of the game." A cynicism of the sort that denies the agency of the electorate and regards democracy as a sham cloak for pure power politics.

  2. Quincy:

    As I point out here, your friend's question is already academic.

    The real effect of Citizens United v. FEC will be to open up the door for the underdogs, and those out of favor in Washington, to make their voices heard. The breaking of the monopoly on influence is undoubtedly a good thing for small and medium business and interest groups.

  3. Terry Noel:

    A good answer. Until the mutual back-scratching relationship between government and big business is severed, most solutions will be cosmetic. Nonetheless, we can count this ruling as a victory for the reason you state. At least it brings part of the process of influence out in the open.

  4. Doug:

    Its not just "big business" relationship, but also the other special interest groups who has managed to cloak itself in legitimacy. It is this back scratching that largely goes unnoticed and unreported to the average person. Allowing groups of people, whether in a business or other association, to speak out at what they feel should be heard must be welcomed.

  5. Chris:

    Stop me if you've heard this one before: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech."

    Call me crazy, but it seems pretty cut and dry there.

  6. NormD:

    Your friend has it exactly backwards. Your large competitor already has a cozy relationship with government. You need to advertise to expose that relationship. As the WSJ has said again and again, campaign finance reform benefits incumbents.

  7. Charlie B:

    Citizens United changes little.

    #1 The big guys are no longer required to use PACs so they get to spend a few more advertising dollars. The little guys still don't have the bucks to spend on political advertising.

    #2 80% or more of the House is already gerrymandered into safe seats. When a Republican state legislature creates safe Republican seats, it also creates safe Democrat seats and vice versa.

    The real action remains in lobbying not elections.

  8. Jeff:

    In practice, it won't change much. We are effectively a 50/50 county. Red/blue, D/R, Coke/Pepsi, use whatever analogy you want, and no business will risk alienating half their potential consumers by putting their name directly on controversial, political advertising.

    They'll continue to use PACs and quiet lobbying to influence the system because it entails less risk.

  9. John Dewey:

    Charlie B and Jeff, about your arguments that little will change:

    Congress passed McCain-Feingold because they wanted to change the election process. Incumbents would no longer be faced with an organized religious right or NRA or Sierra Club determined to hold them accountable for their voting record. That's why McCain-Feingold is often referred to as the Incumbent Protection Act.

    Jeff is correct that consumer product companies will not risk alienating their customers. But the NRA and other interest groups have few such worries. Citizens United restores the balance between corporate lobbyists who bribe office-holders and the issue-oriented organizations who target voters. Free from the censorship of the powerful government, the citizen will once again have access to the full information he needs to hold accountable his elected officials.

  10. Matt:

    And if Congress would just follow the rest of the Constitution and only do what they are allowed to do, there would not be such a need to influence Congress. The only reason this is an issue at all is because so much money is at stake. The whole system would work nicely if we would just follow it.

  11. Harquebus:

    A few points I came up with, ponding this over the last few days:

    1 - All media outlets are corporations. Some are owned by other corporations.

    2 - Media outlets were never restricted by these laws, and I believe were explicitely excluded from the McCain Feingold legislation.

    3 - It's largely the editorial boards of the media that are protesting this most loudly, which makes this look like a corp vs corp debate, with some corps trying to drown out others.

    4 - an overwhelmingly large number of people in the mass media are members of the Council on Foreign Relations, and actively agitate for the CFR's agenda.

    5 - lastly and most importantly, it doesn't matter who donates to a candidate's campaign, if that Congressman actually keeps his oath to uphold the Constitution. And that's the key - getting legislators to stick to the Constitution instead of trampling it to favor their donors.