Goodbye to Doux Commerce

Corporate America today doesn't avoid political fights. It seeks them out.

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The year 2021 is not even half over, and already corporate America has intervened in several high-profile political controversies. Take just the most recent. Last month, hundreds of executives and companies released a public letter in the New York Times and the Washington Post condemning "measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot." No legislation was specified, but the letter obviously related to controversies in Georgia, Texas, and other states that have adopted or are considering Republican-sponsored bills that critics, mostly Democrats, say discriminate against minority voters.

Put aside for a moment the merits of the debate. A debate between two political parties on legislation that relates to the electoral process is about as partisan as you can get. It is precisely the sort of debate that, according to classical liberalism, the marketplace should exclude. According to the doux commerce thesis, the market encourages people to set aside debates about big questions–partisan, religious–in order to make money. Why debate politics and religion with your customers, when doing so can get in the way of a good deal? The market, according to liberal theory, should be a neutral, politics-free zone.

So why is corporate America so invested in politics today? (Corporate America mostly intervenes on the progressive side, though some firms take conservative positions, and there are signs a backlash against progressive corporate politics may be underway). Over at the First Things site, I argue that the reason is because the doux commerce thesis was always wrong, or at least overstated. In an era as politically polarized and saturated as ours, one has to expect that politics will eventually pervade the market, too:

All this is happening because, contrary to the doux commerce thesis, people do not easily check their values at the door when they enter the marketplace. And in a society as evenly divided and politically saturated as ours, it's only natural that many people will want the firms for which they work or with which they do business to reflect their side in public debates. "Employees today…want to know what you stand for," one CEO recently told the Wall Street Journal. That goes for customers, too. In fact, firms may no longer have the option of staying silent on public controversies, since customers increasingly expect corporations to have political and social commitments. "[I]n these fraught times," a corporate lawyer recently explained at Harvard Law School's Forum on Corporate Governance, customers often construe silence on a political controversy as itself "a statement."

Liberalism depends for its success on habits of mind that liberalism itself cannot create. The doux commerce thesis works fine where people mostly agree on public controversies, or where people believe they can safely remain indifferent to them. In a society like ours, though, where views are polarized and politics is everywhere, it is naïve to think the market will be an exception, or that commerce will somehow cause people to forget about their deep disagreements. Until America reaches a new social equilibrium, our market is likely to be as contentious as everything else.

You can read the whole essay here.

NEXT: Regarding Nikole Hannah-Jones and the University of North Carolina

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  1. “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

    1. Go woke, go broke. Let Cadillac get its customers from the diverse females depicted in its commercial. All white males should buy a Mercedes. I wrote woke Coke, from now on it’s Pepsi, Commie scumbags.

      1. Doesn’t matter though. These corporations aren’t held up by “the market”, they’re entirely subsidized by the Fed who prints money and either funnels it directly to megacorps or indirectly through dark money NGOs and government “contracts”.

        1. These companies work for the regime. The regime won’t let them fail. Do you really think a corporation would be allowed to do the same to liberal Massachusetts and remain viable?

          1. Why not. PPP was a good test for helicopter money. Just expand it and bring everything out in the open. Would be preferable to the backroom shit going on now.

    2. Someone’s confusing politics (or just values) with the state.

      But fascists often do that.

      1. Distinction without a difference.

  2. The theory depends on perfect competition.

    Corporations, especially technology companies believe they have no competition.

    For the theory to be proven correct, companies that engage in politics have to do so to the detriment of revenues, for a long enough period for it to damage revenues.

    if Walmart engages in politics, they have driven so many small businesses out that consumers in some rural areas may not have much choice.

    1. technology companies believe they have no competition.

      On the contrary, technology companies believe they have lots of competition. It’s everyone else who is sceptical about that.

      1. I don’t think so at least in their eyes..they have the Federal Reserve Privledge and set the stage for other firms just like how the NYT drove local papers narrative for decades….say Google or FB..they got subsidized investments from hedge funds courtesy of the Fed and these same funds put their ivy league buddies/friends, relatives, same “tribe” network as VP’s in these companies..most of whom had liberal art degrees and very far left views..look at the FB board for example..most from NYC and rarely Irish or Italian ethnics…far left crony capitalists with socialist and “old world grudges” best explains why the wokeness at FB, Google and Twitter and then the rest follow…it isn’t that hard to see..

    2. Walmart already does engage in political virtue signalling. Ironically enough they’ve mostly been siding with progs recently despite still being largely thought of as a ‘conservative’ company. Coca cola too is an odd one. Just a few years ago it was being trashed for being unwoke and now they are all in on every leftwing cause and cancel culture.

      I can’t think of a major corp off the top of my head that hasn’t taken the sjw side. Even the ones usually associated with ‘red America’ are tweeting nonsense about BLM and posting rainbow vomit images. To what benefit, I have no idea other than simple cult mentality and misguided wimpiness.

      1. Had an interesting conversation about Walmart’s support for libs. The gist of it was it was cheaper to give money to them than to pay to rebuild looted and burned down stores.

        1. From “ragebot.” Every accusation is a confession?

    3. A few more months and Mark may figure out that bourgeoisie liberalism is an unsustainable and unstable ideology that eventually leads to marxism.

      1. Disaffected clingers, flailing against the expanding recognition that they will increasingly constitute the inconsequential fringe of American society, are among my favorite culture war casualties.

        1. I think you have me confused with someone else. There’s nothing left to cling to, and there hasn’t been anything worth clinging to for well over 100 years. That’s why the primary goal is burning down society and destroying modernity. When a real fascist takes charge and the cartelization of America happens, and you and your family are against a wall, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.

        2. Republicans will be backing up the trucks at 3 AM to drop off the warm, unfolded ballots with one name checked off.

    4. “Corporations, especially technology companies believe they have no competition.”

      Lol, that’s why Microsoft rules the world and Apple is a small, rump company.

      1. I never thought I’d see a communist defend monopolies… but here we are.

        1. Someone who clearly isn’t a communist is showing you that there is in fact no monopoly. Other than that, great comment.

      2. Yes, Kang AND Kodos.

    5. “if Walmart engages in politics, they have driven so many small businesses out that consumers in some rural areas may not have much choice.”

      Which means that Walmart needs to be broken up — Amazon definitely does.

  3. I doubt most people want corporations abandoning their historical neutrality (besides straightforward self interest lobbying) and wading into politics.. And I doubt all the current virtue signaling has any significant effect in the end. Especially when companies are already big.

    Its just that once a couple jumped in. It becomes a self reinforcing bandwagon. You have to virtue signal not to be the odd corporation out and doing so emboldens the activists to demand even more. Add to it the current social media landscape which encourages mob mentality and the legions of new hire brainwashed HR and corporate executives bringing in the new woke mentality they picked up from college. Put that all together and you get your Oreo cookies and Nike Sneakers screaming at you to support gay marriage and jail Derek Chauvin. If a big enough corporation or collection said enough, they probably could put an end to this nonsense, the activists only have the power the corporations give to them and the vast majority of people still don’t care whether the cheapest can of peanut butter is conservative or liberal. But that would take an ounce of guts. And as I’ve pointed out, a lot of the people in the companies are actually truly brainwashed.

    1. “I doubt most people want corporations abandoning their historical neutrality”

      Lol, thanks for the side-splitter Amos.

      Yeah, remember the ‘historically neutral’ Hollywood of the 50s? Etc.,

      1. Xerox the Diversity Company the tag line of Xerox in the 90’s….they had it all..quotas for a numer of “tribes” for every level, social networks for every group except one (guess who)…lavish diversity meetings at Xerox document university….strong connections to the Democratic Party…had it all but lost focus on the fact they needed to make money. The best left because they faced a real glass ceiling due to their gender or race (guess which ones?), and the rest fought in balkanized fashion as the ship sank…where is Xerox now?

  4. If conservative companies can litigate all the way up to the Supreme Court to challenge other people’s legal rights, I’m not sure what the objection is to progressive companies saying something nice about progressive ideas.

    1. what ‘legal right’ are you talking about?

    2. Note the brainwashing technique here, the conservative companies have litigated away other’s legal rights (no evidence provided), while the progressive companies are tossing bouquets of flowers and pretty bows (not indoctrinating their employees and using racist hiring policies).

      1. They really, honestly don’t know. They’re like a reverse Haidt example.

  5. Corporate America has always been interested in politics. The only difference is that is sometimes makes gesture toward political issues they haven’t cared about before.

  6. The Volokh Conspiracy–Often libertarian. But sometimes, a little First Thingy.

    1. The Volokh Conspiracy is precisely as libertarian as movement conservatism overlaps with libertarianism (Prof. Somin excepted, for which he is reviled here).

      It’s mostly defensive, cynical clingers masquerading about in unconvincing, silly libertarian drag.

      1. That’s why some of us are here specifically to plant seeds for a more reactionary movement — the only true antidote to degenerate leftist perverts.

        1. yawn

        2. degenerate leftist perverts
          degenerate leftist perverts
          na-na-na-na HEY
          na-na-na-na HEY

      2. Don’t you remember those VC posts complaining about the governor of Florida forcing cruise ships to accept unvaccinated customers, or about R senators’ threats to revoke MLB’s antitrust exemption because MLB adopted wrongthink political positions? Hang on, wait, neither do I.

  7. The year 2021 is not even half over, and already corporate America has intervened in several high-profile political controversies. Take just the most recent. Last month, hundreds of executives and companies released a public letter in the New York Times and the Washington Post condemning “measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot.”

    I’m curious why opposing “measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot” is considered controversial as opposed to public-spirited.

    1. Sometimes you can be ‘political’ simply by being selective in facially neutral issues. For example, equality is often seen as ideally a nonpartisan issue but by doing something like building an entire multibillion dollar industry focusing only on finding and ‘fixing’ women’s issues while completely ignoring men’s issues and the downstream effects on men that these ‘fixes’ have on them. You’ve basically weaponized a seemingly egalitarian policy. Similarly Dems cry incessantly about equal representation and the need for places like Washington DC to become a state but conveniently only in situations where it will help them. IE you won’t see many Dems helping conservative counties to break off and become their own states. In this particular situation as always Dems and their corporate lackeys are specifically focusing on instances that help them, ie some red state’s supposedly bad voting policies while ignoring those in blue states.

      Progs are very big on these types of tactics that make them appear to be champions of equality and the underdog while actually working completely to their self interest.

      1. ” Dems cry incessantly about equal representation and the need for places like Washington DC to become a state but conveniently only in situations where it will help them. ”

        What’s the counterexample here?

        1. What’s the counterexample here?

          Have you ever once seen a Democrat argue that Hungary or Belarus should become a state? Huh? Huh? Have you?

    2. The devil is in the details. Just what are the “measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot”.

      Maybe the biggest single issue is voter ID, next is what some folks call ballot harvesting, after that are things like tighter requirements for mail in voting, and limits on just how long early voting is allowed.

      At some point there has to be rules/laws about who is eligible to vote and when and how they can do it. One of the biggest questions in my mind is why the problems always seem to be in places the dems control while the pubs seem to have much smoother voting experiences.

      I am not convinced eligible voters have that much of a problem voting unless they try to create them.

      1. “I am not convinced eligible voters have that much of a problem voting unless they try to create them.”

        My experience with respect to election laws and operations for decades has persuaded me that lousy people have established cynical, partisan obstacles to voting, creating indefensible burdens for many eligible voters.

      2. “One of the biggest questions in my mind is why the problems always seem to be in places the dems control while the pubs seem to have much smoother voting experiences.”

        I think you mean to say why the problems cried about seem to be in places dems control with less people cry about the pubs places.

      3. At some point there has to be rules/laws about who is eligible to vote and when and how they can do it.

        Yes, but if there are no problems with procedures in place (and there are not), then why make them more restrictive? Only to prevent some people from voting.

        One of the biggest questions in my mind is why the problems always seem to be in places the dems control while the pubs seem to have much smoother voting experiences.

        This has something to do with the fact that Democratic voters tend to live in urban areas. Denser population makes it harder for everyone to vote in person in a narrow time frame. Hence extended voting periods, mail-in ballots, etc. become more important.

        You don’t see long lines in rural or suburban areas because the population density is lower.

        And of course it’s precisely these things that GOP legislatures are attacking. Remember that lots of your “places dems control” are also controlled by GOP legislatures – Philadelphia, Atlanta.

      4. I am not convinced eligible voters have that much of a problem voting unless they try to create them.

        I will never not be fascinated by the concept of queueing to vote. So many other otherwise netural laws create barriers to voting because of that. If there were enough polling stations to allow everyone to vote without taking more than 5-10 mins out of their day, things like a law against giving water to queueing voters would be a non-issue.

        Tl;dr, it all starts with – typically Republicans – deliberately not putting enough polling stations in poor neighbourhoods. (If someone has a picture of voters queueing in a rich neighbourhood, please do share.)

        1. Tl;dr, it all starts with – typically Republicans – deliberately not putting enough polling stations in poor neighbourhoods.

          No. The placement of polling stations is done at the local level. Poor neighborhoods are generally in jurisdictions run by Democrats.

          1. But paying for election equipment is done at the state level. Poor neighborhoods that are underserved on election day tend to happen in states run by Republicans.

      5. “One of the biggest questions in my mind is why the problems always seem to be in places the dems control while the pubs seem to have much smoother voting experiences.”

        The Republicans want to make it harder for people who don’t reliably vote for their candidates to get their votes to count. So, the engage in purges of voters on flimsy pretexts that “just happen” to mostly fall on people who don’t reliably vote Republican.
        You imagine these things are happening in the “blue” states, but they are not.
        Here is a simple formulation. If you want to implement strict voter ID, start by building your plans around making sure that all the lawful voters who vote now will also be able to lawfully vote after you implement your “security”. If you aren’t doing that, it’s going to be seen as an attempt to keep some lawful voters from lawfully voting, and if the weight of the restrictions happens to fall more heavily on one party’s voters than the others, it’s going to be assumed that this was, in fact, the goal all along.

    3. “I’m curious why opposing “measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot” is considered controversial as opposed to public-spirited.”

      They’re presumably experienced at marketing, and know that “equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot” will resonate better with the public than “requiring an ID to vote, just like if someone were to visit our corporate headquarters.”

  8. People buy feelings, not things.

    It’s why we have “Brands”.

  9. All this is happening because, contrary to the doux commerce thesis, people do not easily check their values at the door when they enter the marketplace.

    I think utility plays a much stronger role than a perceived values violation in a person deciding to transact business with someone. Were this not the case, China would be bankrupt right now. We buy Chinese products because of utility/necessity.

  10. I ain’t Woke, so I don’t drink Coke.

    1. Ready-for-replacement clingers have rights, too.

    2. “I ain’t Woke, so I don’t drink Coke.”

      Your teeth and pancreas say “thank you”.

  11. Based on some of the comments, I think people need to differentiate “woke” politics in the workplace and “woke” politics in the marketplace. OP is not talking about woke office policies.

    For example, the “be less white” training materials and such that Coca-Cola was caught using come from a small group in HR foisting it upon employees. This material isn’t meant for the public to see.

    OP is talking about marketplace virtue signaling, like saying that they “stand for equality” or whatever that means, on Twitter. In another example, June is coming up, so expect many companies to change their logo to the same shape but a rainbow flag color scheme. Note, they only do this in America and Western Europe.

    They do this, because they think it actually helps their image. It doesn’t really seem to be harming sales except in outlier cases, and mostly for entertainment companies. Woke Disney, for example, is lost billions because their version of Star Wars mostly sucks.

    1. ” Woke Disney, for example, is lost billions because their version of Star Wars mostly sucks.”

      This has to do with hiring JJ Abrams, and firing Lord and Miller. Marvel Studios, which did NOT do these things, continues to make billions of dollars for Woke Disney.

  12. I did not hear many conservatives objecting during the decades in which corporate interests — the Chamber of Commerce, for example — invested enormously in Republican politics, arranging elected officials who predictably and strenuously flattered gun nuts, anti-abortion absolutists, drug warriors, vote suppressors, bigots, and other stale-thinking Americans.

    I am not much interested in this whimpering, provoked by indications conservatives are losing the ability to hold that wall against the liberal-libertarian mainstream. Prof. Movsesian might wish to conserve his resources, focusing them on the battle to create special privilege for those who wish to try to safeguard their opportunity to engage in diffuse and obsolete intolerance (“traditional values,” “conservative values”) by cloaking it in religion.

  13. Its just a loud fraction of employees who care. There is no evidence that any large company has ever suffered from boycotts and such. Its beyond stupid to give into the mob but whatever.

    Corporate managers, like union organizers before and academics now, are going to find out that going all in on one political side is going to get the other side to smash them if and when it can.

    1. “going to get the other side to smash them if and when it can”

      Good thing clingers are such impotent, inconsequential losers and deplorable bigots in modern America, unable to keep up with (let alone defeat) their betters.

      Conservatives get to whine about it as much as they like, of course.

    2. ” There is no evidence that any large company has ever suffered from boycotts and such.”

      Unless you count the evidence.

      1. Enjoy your New Coke, or, if you prefer, your Crystal Pepsi.

  14. Look, it’s just Conquest’s laws, proceeding to their inevitable conclusion.

    1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.

    2. Any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing.

    3. The behavior of any bureaucratic organization can best be understood by assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies.

    The 2nd law works that way because conservatives typically join organizations to get the job done, while liberals join organizations to subvert them. So, while the conservatives gravitate to the positions where the rubber hits the road, the liberals gravitate to the positions that offer the most leverage for subversion; Management, and HR.

    Then they make sure to hire on politics for such positions, instead of merit. So it snowballs: One left-winger gets in, the org starts gradually drifting left. A few more get in, the drift accelerates. Critical mass is hit, and a purge commences. Now the organization is ‘woke’, and devotes itself to advancing left-wing causes, while coasting on momentum and exploiting political leverage to avoid falling.

  15. “So why is corporate America so invested in politics today?”

    Today?!?

    You mean, like ‘all of sudden’ or ‘a new development?’

    1896: McKinley’s chief fundraiser Mark Hanna, in particular, courted corporations with promises of a big-business-friendly agenda and raised more than $6 million. When discussing American politics, Hanna is famously quoted as saying, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

    1907: In the wake of a corporate fundraising scandal around his own successful campaign in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt called for a ban on all such contributions in his 1905 address to Congress. Populist Sen. Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina introduced a bill to that effect the next year; it moved quickly through Congress and was signed by Roosevelt on Jan. 26, 1907. The Tillman Act explicitly prohibited corporations and national banks from contributing money to federal campaigns.

    1935: Public utility companies grew increasingly powerful and wielded unprecedented influence over public policy under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1935, Congress banned them from making political contributions with the Public Utilities Holding Act; there was very little resistance.

    I’ve noticed that law professors aren’t very well versed in history.

  16. apedad…that Hanna quote is a gem. Made me LOL. He was right.

  17. ‘Corporate America mostly intervenes on the progressive side, though some firms take conservative positions, and there are signs a backlash against progressive corporate politics may be underway’

    Intervenes PUBLICALLY. The idea that corporate interests have not been intervening in politics snce corporations began is ludicrous. These public interventions are PR. Appearing to be liberal is popular and placates employees without being meaningful. They don’t actually care about anything except funnelling pubic funds their way, evading taxes, evading or capturing regulation and reducing employee rights, benefits and security.

    1. “They don’t actually care about anything except funnelling pubic funds their way”

      EW.

  18. ‘Put aside for a moment the merits of the debate.’

    Yes, the merits must always be put aside.

    ‘A debate between two political parties on legislation that relates to the electoral process is about as partisan as you can get’

    Democratic parties in a democracy really should at minimum be able to agree that voting is a fundamental right and access to voting should be a priority for all citizens. That one party now openly disagrees and you think this is normal partisanship is probably why the merits always have to be set aside. Getting mad at corporations seeing an angle in being publically pro-democracy is a distraction. Corporations would not be saying this if they actually thought it would mean poltical blowback from Republicans, at least not anywhere it would count, OR they do actually see the direction the Republican Party is taking as some sort of threat to them, but it probably isn’t anything to do with voting rights per se, but to do with Republicans getting more authoritarian and controlling of corporations themselves.

    1. “voting is a fundamental right and access to voting should be a priority for all citizens. That one party now openly disagrees and you think this is normal partisanship is probably why the merits always have to be set aside.”

      Yeah. It’s really repulsive that one party has so little regard for the votes of citizens, they refuse to allow any voting process that would have a shred of integrity and security, and then they lie about everything related to this. You need an ID to buy cough syrup but not to vote. Laughable.

      1. “Laughable.”

        An excellent, one-word summary of your entire argument.

  19. But there is a difference. Businesses will take thise positions that they see helping them commercially. Thus Apple actively opposes government intrusions on privacy in the US and actively helps them in China.

    These are marketing postures, not values, things the company does to help it sell products, not things its leadership will continue to fight for if it actually costs them.

    If the political situation in the US changes, the China-market “values” can just as easily become applicable to the US market as well.

    What I think is really interesting is how this has become rooted in politics. Today politicians tend to have marketing postures, not values. Just look at how many Republican politicians have flipped and crossed previous red lines to remain marketable. Democrats are doing the same.

  20. I suspect like many corporate initiatives this is largely lip service to avoid controversy, taking the obvious side of the issue while not really doing much about it. It will likely fade away in a few months when the next thing comes along.

  21. What the wise business man should do is to pick a “side” for which there is no meaningful opposition, and for which there is wide support.

    “everyone’s vote should count” is such a claim.

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