Citizens United and False Consciousness

The Washington Post offers a brief item this morning on the upcoming Citizens United reargument. Robert Barnes writes, “The court is considering whether to overturn its previous decisions that restrict unions and corporations from using their general treasuries to influence election campaigns.”

Actually, a better description of the case would be: the Supreme Court is considering overturning decisions that restrict corporations from using their general treasuries to try to influence election campaigns.

In the most important decision at issue, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the latter organization wished to run an advertisement naming a candidate and supporting his views on economic policy. That ad may have convinced some voters. It may have repelled others. Many voters would not have been moved at all. Whatever influence the ad might have had would have depended on its reception among the voters.

Many people would like to see Austin affirmed. Absent restrictions on corporate issue spending, they say, business would have too much influence on policymaking. But the Supreme Court said in Buckley v. Valeo (and more recently) that restricting speech in the name of equality violates the First Amendment. Others see corporate spending as a kind of corruption and thus subject to the restrictions of campaign finance law. But if Austin falls,  corporations will not be able to give candidates contributions in exchange for favors. They will be able to fund speech independently of campaigns and parties.

In truth, I think many people who support proscribing corporate spending in campaigns believe speech by business is “bad speech” that will make for bad policies. But “prior restraint” of speech clearly violates the First Amendment. Voters, and not censors, are supposed to decide what constitutes “bad speech” and “bad policy.” The fear of corporate speech often reflects a fear that voters will be persuaded by business interests to endorse candidates and policies that are not in the interest of the most voters. But coercion to preclude false consciousness is not compatible with the foundations of a liberal republic, the form of government ordained by the U.S. Constitution.

So the Court may well let corporations and labor unions try to influence elections. Voters will decide whether such organizations actually do influence elections.

Here’s a video produced by Cato’s Caleb Brown and Austin Bragg following the oral argument of Citizens United (and featuring Yours Truly):