The recent Supreme Court ruling striking down the ban on corporate and union spending at election time is both blessing and curse. On the one hand, removing a legal barrier to free speech is always a good thing in itself. Government shouldn’t dictate who can speak or from where people may get information.
More contentiousness in politics is better than less. Free–wheeling debate is more likely to produce good outcomes than a controlled flow of information.
But there is a downside to the ruling that we should freely acknowledge. If history and recent times are any indication, big corporations and unions will use their new freedom of political speech to promote bad ideas. By “bad ideas” I mean proposals for more government interference with our lives and liberty.
It’s a great myth that businesses, especially big prominent corporations, want less government intervention in the economy. On the contrary, they love government power because it provides things they can’t achieve in a freely competitive marketplace where force and fraud are barred.
Corporations lobby for interventions that benefit themselves by hampering competitors. You often find companies asking for tariffs and other restrictions on imports that compete too effectively with their products. Agribusinesses welcome taxpayer help in selling their products abroad; they also love subsidies, price supports, and acreage allotments.
Businesses, despite public impression, routinely support regulations imposing product standards and other requirements. Why? Burdens from government rules don’t fall uniformly on all firms. Major corporations with big legal and accounting departments can handle regulations far more easily than small firms can.
Moreover, when government dictates product standards, say in the name of safety, it removes that factor from the competitive arena, giving companies less incentive to outdo their competitors along that dimension.
In American history big companies were behind virtually every advancement of the regulatory state. Things are no different today — even under Barack Obama.
Admittedly this is not the way the story is usually told. Business is thought to favor deregulation, while progressive forces favor enlightened government guidance. But in fact, big business (and a lot of small business too) would panic at the thought of thorough laissez faire — the end to all guarantees.
So here’s the dilemma: limits on free political speech for corporations and unions offend our sense of justice, but they will use free speech to pursue unjust ends. What to do?
There is only one answer. We must strip government of the power to dispense privileges to anyone. If we can pull that off, the problem of money in politics will evaporate.
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) magazine.