Corporate Speech: A Threat to Public Health?

Color me perplexed.

The same people who railed so strongly against Citizens United and lament the alleged corrupting influence of corporate money in politics now express concern about last week’s Supreme Court ruling prohibiting unions from levying special assessments against non-members in a closed shop, when the levy is intended for political agitation.

If you cut through the rhetorical crap, the message seems to be: Corporate speech bad, activist/labor speech good. Nice gig, if you can get it.

You see this tendency most audaciously expressed with some of the defenses offered of late in support of Mayor Bloomberg’s fatwa against sugary beverages. One friend of mine, who used to be a libertarian before he drank deeply from the Obama Kool-Aid (now there’s a sugary, nutrition-free drink I’d favor banning!), told me that bans are justified in part because corporations market sugary drinks to the masses, and the masses therefore are sufficiently influenced that they sip their way into an obesity that translates into socialized long-term avoidable health care costs. Only the power of the state, wielded by the vanguard of health commissars to ban large-size sugary drinks, can turn the tide against the wave of obesity set to roll across America like muffin tops on the first warm day of spring.

When I ask whether individuals should accept responsibility for what they consume, the response is: Well, corporate marketing influences people, so deploying state power to regulate what they’re marketing is permissible.

My response: So what? I’m exposed to hundreds of marketing messages each day. I saw like a dozen tampon ads on TV yesterday but that doesn’t mean I’ve developed a subliminal compulsion to purchase feminine hygiene products.

Marketing has two primary purposes — to make someone aware of a new product or service and to influence a person’s decision about which product or service a person should partake when shopping in a specific market. Hence, the goal of a Ford ad is to get you to buy a Ford when you’re in the market for a new car — not to force you to join the car-buying market.

Don’t be fooled: The Bloomberg ban and anti-corporate-speech agitation stem from the same root — the belief that corporations have an agenda that almost universally is inconsistent with the public good, and that citizens are usually incapable (to their ultimate detriment) of escaping the marketing messages of these corporations.

In short, it’s a conspiracy theory. Evil billionaires deploy “advertising” and helpless citizens are compelled to obey, thus fattening the pockets of corporate hegemons while leading to environmental despoilation, obesity, false consciousness and whatnot that the rest of society will have to pay for. Only the power of the regulatory state can protect the people from utter ruination while protecting society from the harmful externalities these fatcats would force society to bear.

Of course, there are two chief problems with this schema, apart with the slighlty snarky way I’ve presented it.

First, to the extent that corporations are legal entities, it’s not clear why their speech should be less protected than that of other organized groups. Corporations are associations of citizens who band together for a common purpose — e.g., profit. They’re often beholden to shareholders who prefer that the corporation focus on profit and not on social engineering. In this sense, corporations are fundamentally no different from other associations, including labor unions and political parties and non-profit interest groups. They are aggregations of people joined together for a common purpose. That one’s First Amendment rights should be curtailed on account of that purpose (provided, of course, the purpose is legal) seems odd. Any restriction on corporate speech, for example, should mirror restrictions on union speech or the speech patterns of various NGOs and non-profit entities.

Thus, just like corporations can’t withhold money from employee paychecks to pay for lobbyists, so also should union members be free from having dues deducted without their consent to engage in political lobbying. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Second, the specific claims against profit-seeking corporations rely on a curious thesis — that citizens are largely powerless to resist marketing. Although it’s undoubtedly clear that marketing influences behavior, marketing doesn’t determine behavior. If you’re thirsty and want a sugary beverage, and are in the mood for a 12-oz. serving, you’re not going buy a 44-oz. Ultra Gulp simply because you saw an ad for it. There’s no strong correlation between marketing and people engaging in self-defeating behavior. If you want 12 oz. of a drink, you’ll buy 12 oz. of a drink. The claim that corporations make it cheaper to buy in bulk — say, 44 oz. for $2 and 12 oz. for $1 — and therefore people will buy more than they want (at a higher total sale price) because they’re programmed to be bargain shoppers on a unit basis, strikes me as odd. Price sensitivity is a decision point for some people, but if you’re not price sensitive then bulk rates aren’t going to play into the analysis. If you are price sensitive, then this was already a factor that’s not related to a specific marketing initiative. Cart, horse.

Put slightly differently: Anti-corporate activists mistake the weak correlation between marketing and purchasing and assume that this correlation necessarily implies causation; this causative effect, in turn, needs to be regulated when people make market choices that these activists argue aren’t in the people’s best long-term interest.

My thought is this: Yes, some people are more sensitive to marketing messages than others, but the decision to engage in one behavior rather than another depends on a complex interplay of causes and effects — of which, corporate marketing messages necessarily play a very small part. If you’re going to drink enough Coke or Pepsi to become morbidly obese, then the determinative factor is likely a genetic predisposition to obesity or direct environmental factors and not TV commercials. To pick one very small and weak correlative factor and decide that it requires First Amendment restrictions seems like bringing a bazooka to a fly-fishing contest.

But even if we do decide that people are mind-numbed robots primed to obey every marketing message they receive even when it’s not advantageous to their survival, then whatever restrictions we place on corporate free speech must then be reflected in similar restrictions on the “corporate” speech of other corporate entities like labor unions, do-gooder non-profits and the like. Our system of laws requires equal treatment for equal conditions, and privileging the speech of non-profits over for-profits just isn’t supported by a content-analysis claim under the First Amendment.

The moral of the story: Attempts to regulate sugary drinks or corporate speech all spring from the theory that the average citizen isn’t capable of responding responsibly to marketing messages, therefore those messages must be regulated by benevolent overseers in government.

It’s for your own good. You moron.

On Mosques and Religious Tolerance

“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country … That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances … This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”

So says President Barack Obama, in reference to the plans by an Islamic group to build a major mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center. Interesting perspective, that.

The response to the $100 million project sponsored by the Cordoba Initiative is depressing if only because of its banality: Lefties who ordinarily gloat at the erosion of the Judeo-Christian perspective in the public square nevertheless demand a mosque at Ground Zero to show how much America values religious pluralism, while conservatives who normally champion religious freedom demand that the mosque be suppressed or at least located elsewhere.

Both sides are wrong, and hypocritical. As usual.

Conservatives should know better than to impose a sectarian litmus test on the placement of mosques; building the facility a few blocks away from Ground Zero may be tacky, but it does not represent a threat to national security or to religious freedom, even if the project’s funders have shadowy ties to terrorism (hint: that’s what the FBI is for). Cries about the sensitivity of the “victims of 9/11” ring hollow, as well — the dead have no feelings to offend, and in any case, appealing to victimhood is hardly a staple tactic of the Right’s playbook, and for good reason. I cannot adduce a single non-aesthetic conservative principle that should justify opposition to the Cordoba Initiative’s plan.

However, liberals who assert that permitting a mosque in that location is a sign of America’s robust religious tolerance are not fooling anyone. The Left leads the assault against religious freedom in America, through incremental restrictions against the public display of Judeo-Christian sensibilities in the public square. No serious person believes that liberals are unabashed proponents of religious expression: Look no further than the ongoing drama over the Christian Legal Society’s funding for proof. If anything, this situation is a sign that the Left’s embrace of non-Western diversity is genuinely as muddle-headed and chronically unserious as many conservatives feared — that liberals cannot distinguish between Islam as a religion and Islam as a culture, nor grasp that the Muslim world has no American-style “wall of separation” between religious faith and political authority that allows for the purely private religious belief characteristic of WASP social mores.

The one aspect of this situation that disturbs me the most isn’t the hypocrisy of it, however. Rather, it’s the unspoken assumption that the Cordoba Initiative’s plan somehow marks a referendum on America’s commitment to religious pluralism.

You hear it from Barack Obama. You hear it from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. You hear it from New York governor David Patterson. The refrain is the same: We must permit the Cordoba Initiative to do exactly as it wishes, because any restrictions on mosque placement will necessarily imply that the last 221 years of the U.S. Constitution and its First Amendment protections will thereby be  irrevocably refuted. Or, in its more crude form: We must let them do as they want to show how tolerant we are.

Conservatives have missed the boat on picking up on the substantive argument, instead preferring by-and-large to offer twofold opposition on the grounds that, first, allowing a mosque at Ground Zero means the terrorists win, and second, that a mosque so close to the allegedly sacred ground of the Twin Towers constitutes a fresh trauma for the survivors of 9/11. Both claims are unadulterated nonsense. This is a logistics issue, not a political-philosophy dilemma.

The real problem here is the astonishing failure of leadership by New York city and state leaders. If we concede the Cordoba Initiative’s inherent right to build a mosque, and we accept that there is a legitimate perception problem (as well as public opposition) for a mosque at Ground Zero, then the solution is pretty simple: Let elected leaders apply the incentives and dis-incentives of government to “facilitate” the mosque somewhere else in New York. If they can do it to preserve spotted toads in California, why not a mosque in Manhattan?

I seriously doubt that New York under Mayor Giuliani and Gov. Pataki would have ceded its moral authority to a group of shadowy imams the same way that Bloomberg and Patterson have allowed. The fact that this is even an issue speaks volumes about the leadership ineptitude from city hall and from Albany. The reason that American religious pluralism has been so robust is because the state serves as an impartial referee among competing interests without giving any particular interest the right to make an absolute claim. We didn’t allow the Mormons to engage in polygamy, we don’t allow just anyone to smoke peyote, we don’t say that molesting kids is OK as long as it’s only in the confessional, and we don’t let soldiers suddenly decide, a week before they deploy, that they have a religious opposition to war. So why should government abdicate its power to influence the placement of the mosque on the flimsiest of religious-freedom grounds? It’s hard to say which is more breathtaking: The irrationality of the situation, or the incompetence or cowardice of those at the helm of the involved governments.

Let there be no mistake: The Cordoba Initiative should be allowed to build a mosque. Placing the mosque at Ground Zero is tacky and insensitive and will be a thorn in the community for many years to come. But this whole brouhaha is less a referendum on America’s commitment to religious freedom than an indictment on the failure of political leaders to respond with foresight and wisdom to an entirely foreseeable controversy.

Let us pray that New Yorkers wise up to the real problem.