On 21 January, I was still too absorbed by the Haitian earthquake to really pay too much attention to the Supreme Court decision rejecting corporate campaign finance contribution limits (which is basically what Citizens United amounts to). While I am by no means a specialist in domestic law or politics, I have to say that the implications of the decision really worry me.
Some observers have claimed that the case marks the beginning of an unprecedented embedding of corporate America within the apparatus of the state. Certainly, it looks that way. But just as certainly, the fiction of the American political system – or really any strong state at all – as ever having functioned independently of the industrial complex it tames, nurtures, and protects, is just that: a fiction. As Alice Amsden has noted elsewhere, America cultivates a certain founding myth, stemming from the Jeffersonian vision of a nation of smallholders and diffuse economic power, that is totally at odds with the Hamiltonian strategy of government-infused big-business development that became our reality. This topic resonates with me, as someone concerned with the ways in which industry may condition the strength and legitimacy of the state – and, in the cases that I study in conflict-affected areas of the world, determine the relationship between the state and its challengers.
The power and legitimacy of the modern state on the one hand, and the breadth and depth of economic industrialization on the other, can be said to develop in tandem. This often occurs in the crucible of war, which in puts strain on public finances and generates a state-industry mutualism. And it isn’t new. Even in what W.W. Rostow termed the “pre-conditions for takeoff” in Western Europe, there existed a growing philosophical alliance between the increasingly powerful and centralized absolutist monarchies on the one hand, and the nascent propensity to leverage scientific knowledge for technological applications. Francis Bacon asserted that, “…the true and lawful goal of the sciences is none other than this: that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers.” His contemporary and countryman, James I of England declared that, “[t]he state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth: for kings are not only God’s Lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself they are called Gods.” Nor were these two notions merely concomitant, but found their union in the writing of Thomas Hobbes, that devotee of causal materialism who sought to harness scientific knowledge of the social realm to better govern it – and thus avoid the much trumpeted “war, as of every man, against every man” that our natures would surely bring upon us otherwise. In developing this ideology, Hobbes paved the way for future social engineers like Saint-Simon.
The campaign finance decision is particularly troubling because it seems to have the potential to accelerate an already run-away social process of wealth accumulation. Capital has a tendency to concentrate – “cumulative causation” Gunnar Myrdal called it. It is the reason we have cities. It is the reason we have regional competitive advantage. It is the reason we have disparities between rich and poor, North and South, the developed and developing worlds. To a certain extent, and for all the reasons that Alfred Marshall enumerated, it is a good thing. But as we all know, labor is not as fleet of foot as capital, nor as maleable. Labor must be cultivated and it can be susceptible to emotional and social crisis. And labor is, lest we forget, real people who desire real, dignified work. At the risk of sounding downright Marxian, labor, not capital, is the end of economics. And government, elected by majority vote, has always served as a mechanism for bringing the two back into line with one another, educating the workforce, regulating capital markets, preventing exploitation, and redistributing wealth.
That last function is increasing important in a society in with the richest 20% of the population hold over 85% of the private wealth – a statistic that most Americans do not approve of (if they even know). Moreover, economists have realized for over half a century (since Kuznets) that societies in which wealth is more unequally distributed tend to have slower long-run growth trajectories, even if the industrialization process itself at first creates inequalities. So there is a balance to be struck: on the one hand, we want to incentivize entrepreneurs and the private sector more generally to go forth and productify (and presumably accumulate wealth). On the other hand, we don’t want to deprive future entrepreneurs the educational and business opportunities that past generations have enjoyed. That balance is best struck by our political institutions, because they are designed to have longer time horizons than the private sector, even if they are informed by it.
As I’ve mentioned, I harbor no illusions as to the absolute separation of the private and government sectors in American political life – nor do I believe we should aspire to that vision. But that joint venture should ultimately be accountable in its performance to the voters. I worry that the rescinding of corporate campaign finance contribution limits, a mainstay of the American legislative environment for over 100 years, threatens to undermine our government accountability. That is for two reasons.
First, like it or not, humans are gullible, sometimes ill-informed, often herd-like, and easily swayed by well-funded, emotionally evocative, and aesthetically appealing advertising blitzes. For instance, many elections in the developing world occur relatively freely and fairly, but in places where the dominant party is the only one wealthy enough to afford publicity, the outcomes are still just foregone conclusions. What good is fair when most people only know of one choice? Yes, individual voters can, and sometimes do, do due diligence in researching their ballot options. But as a rule and from a structural point of view, most do not. Why not make it easy to do so?
Second, while some Tea Party pundits have claimed that this is a victory for the middle class (since a middle class upstart politician with a bold new message of reform can now find the resources to fight in the big leagues, or so goes the argument), I think we all realize what an ungodly load of crap that is. There are far fewer middle class upstart politicians with bold new messages of reform than there are money-grubbing, snake-oil-selling, middle class aspiring politicians who will say or do just about anything to get into the hallowed Halls of Power. If you were the CEO of a company, liable for lawsuits by your investors if you failed to maximize their profits at any given point, would you really choose to sponsor some unpredictable, stubbornly idealistic do-gooder? No way, I’d take the palavering snake-oil dude any day, and have him peddling my agenda.
In the end, I wonder if we are doomed to the fate of all democratic societies as predicted by Mancur Olson: that they should all succumb, slowly but surely, to the increasingly ineluctible influence of specialized interest groups – those able to lobby for concentrating benefits on them while dispersing the costs across the voiceless masses.
I close with another quote from Sir Francis Bacon – a bit of cold comfort:
Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.– Francis Bacon