What Might Be Done About Big Corporate Activism

Yesterday, I argued that the trend of Big Businesses, particularly tech giants, to pressure state and local governments into progressive social policies was not due so much to globalism as it was a symptom of the general political climate.  But I also acknowledged the concern that freedom of speech and religion may be trampled by these corporations’ use of economic power for political ends.

So what might be done about it?  Several things come to mind, some of which are more conservative in nature, and some of which are more populist.

The most immediate idea would be counter-boycotts of companies that engage in this sort of activism.  I have been more open to boycotts than some conservatives — given the right circumstances.  But it may not be a consistently effective tactic.

Take for example the uproar over New York’s Public Theater anti-Trump-themed production of Julius Caesar.  I tend to think that economic pressure tactics here were and should have been more effective than the stage-crashing by alt-right mopes.  The target is limited and you would think that supporting assassination porn is not all that politically defensible.

Yet the results were mixed. Bank of America and Delta Airlines have pulled sponsorship from the Public Theater, but Time Warner’s CEO defended his company’s financial support for the theater. (I suspect that media companies are unlike others and they come up again below.)

The second-most immediately occurring idea would be to try to restrain corporate speech.  I think this would be a bad idea for several reasons.  First, I think Citizens United was correctly decided.  Second, I think it would be difficult to convince the conservatives on the SCOTUS that Citizens United was wrongly decided.  Third, even if you could sway conservative Justices, I think the liberal Justices would then pivot to defending corporate speech on the basis of stare decisis and correctly accuse the conservatives of being activists for momentary gain.

The second-most immediately occurring idea is if the economic power of Bigness is the root of the problem, a populist approach would be to seek reform — or threaten to reform — antitrust laws.  Google is under antitrust scrutiny in Europe, but not here in the U.S.  Ben Domenech has noted the dominance Facebook and Google are asserting over the digital infrastructure of ad networks.  I’d note that Facebook’s foray into “Instant Articles” represents a similar attempt to assert control over news distribution in general.

Google, Facebook, and Amazon all face potential antitrust scrutiny under the Trump administration.  There is ongoing speculation over whether Trump’s nominee to head the Federal Trade Commission will be Google-friendly or a Google-skeptic.

Beyond this, the more populist of the GOP could try to forge a coalition with the lefties who have been complaining about media consolidation for years.  More broadly, populists could propose antitrust reform to move the law away from its current focus on economic efficiency (currently accepted by the SCOTUS, based on the writings of Robert Bork and Richard Posner) and return the field to focus more on political concerns like market concentration.

I am personally not a fan of these more ambitious steps.  As a conservative, I tend to agree with the current judicial focus on the benefit or harm to the consumer in such matters.  Also, it’s possible that increased antitrust pressure will prompt tech companies to become even more involved in politics (this was certainly the case with Microsoft, which had little presence in DC before the feds went after them).  Nevertheless, there is a bipartisan disdain for “corporate media” that could be exploited, and in my experience virtually no one likes their cable or satellite provider (I’ve been lucky on this score, tbh).

Lastly, there is my hobby-horse: education reform.  Primary education in America generally does a lousy job teaching civics (and has for a very long time).  Secondary education was convinced by Leftists to largely stop teaching the value of Western Civilization, thus providing young adults a mix of post-modernism and job-training.  It’s a system designed to produce people who think exactly like a tech CEO.  Of course, reform isn’t an easy or immediate fix.  But if you want to treat the disease instead of the symptoms, it will have to be done at some point.

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