I firmly believe in the freedom of speech, but I only believe in that liberty for individuals. Human rights do not apply to inanimate entities such as corporations — corporate personhood is a facile notion. Giving corporations rights to “free expression” by allowing them to exercise financial power over politicians is giving possession of capital substantially more political power as an attribute. In other words, in rules of law where there are no limits on corporations funding political campaigns to advance their interests, democracy is eroded. Rich individuals and corporations could simply be kingmakers by (1) directly funding political campaigns and essentially structuring the policies of politicians, (2) funding media institutions to influence public perception by deeply biased, and even false, political commentary and (3) generally manipulate the public by dumping their money wherever necessary.
This is a problem both in Asia and in the West. In the U.S., the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC essentially declared multiple campaign finance restrictions unconstitutional as violative of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. The notion that some powerful corporation that simply wants to advance its interests must have its free speech prioritized over the people is fundamentally undemocratic.
The reason it is fundamentally undemocratic — as is the facile legal notion of “corporate personhood” — is that, in a democracy, political power must be decentralized. In other words, individuals should be able to play equal roles in democratic decisionmaking. When corporations can pay candidates as much as they want, then (1) there is no level playing field between various candidates because of the amount of money they have, as an extension of which (2) candidates essentially do whatever the corporations ask them to do, irrespective of whether they promised to do something of the sort, and irrespective of whether there’s a benefit to the people involved, and (3) people are deliberately manipulated in various ways, and their decisionmaking is infringed upon. Here, it is point (2) that is least obvious, and requires critical analysis.
For-profit institutions, generally, look toward short-term benefit or gain, over long-term stability of the market. Generally, public corporations have an ownership structure that requires them to impress their shareholders, so that there’s more investment, for which short-term profit is necessary. As such, corporations require the government to create conditions where their short-term goals are most profitable. That’s why corporate lobbies exist, and they’re willing to breach basic ethics to achieve their objectives. In the United States, the sugar industry has funded the deliberate publication of misleading scientific studies on the effects of sugar. In India itself, there was some level of advocacy to replace cooked midday meals with packaged biscuits under government midday meal schemes in schools. There are even larger corporate interests in question, and those are best fulfilled by placing candidates desirable to corporations in office.
The reason this is erosive of fundamental democratic values is that it is contradictory to the principle of “one person, one vote.” If each vote is to have equal value, then no corporation or individual should have greater political influence than any other. Of course, this is a utopian or quixotic ideal: but every step toward it is an objective social good. Erosion of democratic institutions is objectively harmful to social stability as a whole.
Thankfully, in India, we do have restrictions on the level of influence that individual or corporate wealth has on politics. But there have been multiple criticisms of these restrictions as “undemocratic.” I’m not qualified to do an in-depth analysis on the level of political influence campaign finance is used for in India, of course, but the notion that these restrictions are undemocratic is a myopic one. It is myopic because corporations are not people, and so don’t deserve the same legal rights. Money is not speech. At the point at which corporations looking to short-term financial gain have more power over government than the people, which they already do, what we’re looking at isn’t a democracy: it’s an oligarchy.
Campaign finance is not the only way corporations exert political influence — they will continue to use indirect, nefarious means to create conditions for their short-term objectives to be achieved. But at the point at which there are no restrictions on the structure of campaign finance, corporate managers can just buy elections directly. The enormous power of corporate lobbies, thus, is enhanced by such loose regulations. To be sure, none of this is a criticism of corporations or capitalism. I am not a socialist, or an anarchist. I’m a capitalist — a bitter one, but a capitalist nonetheless — so I am not opposed to corporations in principle. Most people aren’t. I am, however, opposed to the wreckage of the political system.
Issues such as health care costs (which affect both human welfare and long-term economic stability through their influence on productivity) and environmental protection (which is basically the most important issue of today) are affected by corporatist control: because there will always be vested interests against these long-term measures simply for the short term objective of profit. For example, lobby firms have spent millions of dollars fighting healthcare reform measures by President Obama. Similarly, multiple corporations back think tanks that deny the scientific consensus on climate change. At the point at which those very corporations gain the ability to exert direct and powerful influence over election, there’s no doubt they’ll push these interests — which are objectively harmful to long-term economic stability, and to society as a whole.
Every time a corporation buys an election, a battle in the war for democracy is lost. Only when the campaign finance system is reformed to prevent such intervention can true progress be made.