Last January, in bold and dramatic fashion, the Supreme Court issued a ruling extending the rights of speech to corporations in Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission. I hold two positions on the decision, like I do with most issues, that seemingly contradict one another, but I ultimately endorse the decision to extend First Amendment privileges to corporations and unions. The reason for my apparent conflict of opinion is that the contemporary terms of debate in American politics are between left and right, rather than more appropriately arguing in terms of the state versus the individual. On this issue, the right versus left model routinely intrigues me by the fact that the left generally fears big business, while the right fears big government. These fears are completely justified on both sides, yet each side rarely makes the connection between the two. Big government enables big business, which exemplifies the more appropriate debate that pits the state against the individual. Therefore, my conclusion on the ruling, while ultimately siding with the majority opinion, comes with severe reservations.
Reservations first: As a opponent of state intervention into all economic activity, I oppose the notion of corporations. Corporations are artificial entities created by the state, with legal privileges and protections, and they essentially act as an extension of government into the private sector. It should be noted that corporations, as traditionally conceived, would not exist in a free market, although there would likely be entities very similar in structure to corporations. However, these quasi-corporate structures would lack the same legal benefits and immunities that incorporated business enjoys.
The beauty of free markets, and yet another reason why corporation-weary leftists should adopt libertarian philosophy, is that big business’s market dominance, perverse incentives and profits would be much more limited were true market forces able to work. No longer would big banks presume that their risky investments would be insulated from market consequences, and no longer would businesses be able to use regulations to limit outside competition if there were real market freedom. Constant pressures of bankruptcy and contract enforcement would act as limits to irresponsible decisions.
Now to explain my support for the Citizens United decision, it is true that groups are merely collections of individuals. Therefore, it logically follows that if individuals have an unalienable right to free speech, the mere collective voice of a group should be free from unreasonable restraint as well. If individuals desire to join together under a common theme in order to more effectively communicate a message, then they should be no less restricted than an individual acting alone. As long as our legal framework recognizes the lawful status of corporations, then their right to speech should not be limited.
The Supreme Court’s decision, while ultimately falling on the side of freedom, is a difficult decision for principled libertarians. But if we simply refuse to argue on the domain of the childish left-right paradigm, then we can conclude in accordance with our principles.