Corporate Political Speech

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 8:15 AM EST

On Monday, I explained why the Supreme Court's recent decision legalizing unlimited corporate spending (or "speech") in elections based on the premise that corporations are legal "persons" deserving free-speech rights doesn't make sense:

Corporations can never take political action premised on genuine support for a politician's ideas or values. Corporate spending on elections must be predicated on corporate self-interest, because corporations are legally required to maximize profit for their shareholders. They will never be able to participate in elections in a "politically motivated" way. They can only participate in service of their own bottom lines. If a corporation acted against its own interests because their management thought it would serve the greater good (for example, by bankrolling an ad campaign supporting a clean-air law that would cripple the company), that would be literally illegal. 

Justin Fox, the new editor of the Harvard Business Review, agrees:

The "one and only social responsibility of business," economist Milton Friedman wrote back in 1970 in a New York Times Magazine essay that launched a thousand arguments, is "to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game ..." Friedman contrasted this with the multiple responsibilities that an individual — such as a corporate executive — might have "to his family, his conscience, his feelings of charity, his church, his clubs, his city, his country."

[...]

The individuals who make up the electorate in the United States are, as Friedman described, beings of many facets — their actions and their views shaped by pecuniary self interest but also by values, beliefs, and loyalties that might conflict with that self interest. The ideal for-profit corporation, on the other hand, is out to do nothing but make as much money as it can "within the rules of the game." It is supposed to behave in a fashion that for an individual would probably be described as psychopathic. And if corporations are allowed to play a decisive role in shaping the "rules of the game," we have effectively put the inmates in control of the asylum.

[...]

If corporations are persons, they are — if they behave as Milton Friedman wanted them to — persons with mental and emotional impairments so severe that any decent judge would feel entirely justified in declaring them incompetent.

Great stuff. Fox and Reuters' Felix Salmon have more.

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