The Tension Between Conservative Corporate Law Theory and Citizens United

The following post is based on a recent article forthcoming in Cornell Law Review, earlier issued as a working paper of the Harvard Law School Program on Corporate Governance, by Leo Strine, Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court and a Senior Fellow of the Program, and Nicholas Walter, law clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and a former law clerk at Delaware Court of Chancery. The article, Conservative Collision Course?: the Tension Between Conservative Corporate Law Theory and Citizens United, is available here. Work from the Program on Corporate Governance about corporate political spending includes Shining Light on Corporate Political Spending by Lucian Bebchuk and Robert Jackson, discussed on the Forum here, and Corporate Political Speech: Who Decides? by Lucian Bebchuk and Robert Jackson, available here.

Leo Strine, Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court Review and a Senior Fellow of the Harvard Law School Program on Corporate Governance, and Nicholas Walter recently issued an essay with that is forthcoming in Cornell Law Review. The essay, titled Conservative Collision Course?: the Tension Between Conservative Corporate Law Theory and Citizens United, is available here.

The abstract of Chief Justice Strine’s and Walter’s essay summarizes it briefly as follows:

One important aspect of Citizens United has been overlooked: the tension between the conservative majority’s view of for-profit corporations, and the theory of for-profit corporations embraced by conservative thinkers. This article explores the tension between these conservative schools of thought and shows that Citizens United may unwittingly strengthen the arguments of conservative corporate theory’s principal rival.

Citizens United posits that stockholders of for-profit corporations can constrain corporate political spending and that corporations can legitimately engage in political spending. Conservative corporate theory is premised on the contrary assumptions that stockholders are poorly-positioned to monitor corporate managers for even their fidelity to a profit maximization principle, and that corporate managers have no legitimate ability to reconcile stockholders’ diverse political views. Because stockholders invest in for-profit corporations for financial gain, and not to express political or moral values, conservative corporate theory argues that corporate managers should focus solely on stockholder wealth maximization and non-stockholder constituencies and society should rely upon government regulation to protect against corporate overreaching.  Conservative corporate theory’s recognition that corporations lack legitimacy in this area has been strengthened by market developments that Citizens United slighted: that most humans invest in the equity markets through mutual funds under section 401(k) plans, cannot exit these investments as a practical matter, and lack any rational ability to influence how corporations spend in the political process.

Because Citizens United unleashes corporate wealth to influence who gets elected to regulate corporate conduct and because conservative corporate theory holds that such spending may only be motivated by a desire to increase corporate profits, the result is that corporations are likely to engage in political spending solely to elect or defeat candidates who favor industry-friendly regulatory policies, even though human investors have far broader concerns, including a desire to be protected from externalities generated by corporate profit-seeking. Citizens United thus undercuts conservative corporate theory’s reliance upon regulation as an answer to corporate externality risk, and strengthens the argument of its rival theory that corporate managers must consider the best interests of employees, consumers, communities, the environment, and society—and not just stockholders—when making business decisions.

The full paper is available for download here.

 

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One Comment

  1. James McRitchie
    Posted Sunday, September 7, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Please continue to send e-mails in support of the petition to rule-comments@sec.gov. Include File Number 4-637 in the subject line. Copy and paste my comments or write your own:

    Mr. Brent J. Fields, Secretary
    Securities and Exchange Commission
    100 F Street, Northeast
    Washington, D.C. 20549
    Re: File Number 4-637.

    Dear Mr. Fields:

    I am an individual investor concerned with how the corporations I invest in are spending corporate funds on political activities. I write in support of a petition by the Committee on Disclosure of Corporate Political Spending, File Number 4-637. In Citizens United v. FEC the US Supreme Court noted that shareowners could “determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits” and could discipline directors and executives who use corporate resources inconsistently with shareowner interests.

    However, unless shareowners can easily access information about a company’s political speech and expenditures we will be unable to know whether such speech “advances the corporation’s interest in making profits” and will be unable to discipline directors and executives. The rulemaking sought by the petitioners would address that issue by giving shareowners the information we need to hold the managers and directors of our companies accountable.

    Surely, three years and more than a million comments later, it is time for the SEC to act.

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