In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that corporations were legal persons with respect to the First Amendment, and so had rights to political speech. This allowed corporations to make unlimited contributions to political action committees.
Jewish law provides powerful explanations of why this situation must not continue unregulated, and at the very least all such contributions must be clearly and specifically disclosed to shareholders.
The Talmud states that “A mitzvah is better done personally than done via agent.” Why? I suggest because agents have no right to think in terms of moral rather than practical interests, unless they are specifically instructed otherwise. Agents cannot take into account the possibility that my practical interests may conflict with others interests in such a way that I would, given the choice, prefer theirs. Therefore, issues at the intersection of rights and responsibilities, of self-interest vs. communal interest, should not be delegated.
Allowing corporations to play a large role in political discussions runs directly against this principle. The multiple layers through which corporate ownership is filtered nowadays means that most corporations have no real relationship to any owners not themselves, and most of us – who invest our money in mutual funds, often via pension funds – have no real idea what we own, let alone any notion of exercising moral influence via our ownership.
Delegating the political speech of shareholders to corporations – which is the inevitable consequence of allowing corporations to engage in political speech – therefore ensures that only self-interest will be considered in politics. Furthermore, corporations aggregate the money of the rich and the poor into the legal framework of a democracy of dollars – in corporations, it is the majority of shares that controls, not the majority of owners. In that democracy of dollars, winner takes all, and the moral voices of those with title to less than half the total corporate wealth are effectively silenced.
Delegating the political speech of shareholders to corporations therefore guarantees that the less wealthy will not be able to influence public discourse in proportion to their assets, much less their numbers. This is an obvious violation of republican principles, and deprives minority shareholders of the opportunity to exercise moral agency.
As a rabbinic thinker, I oppose such delegation on the grounds that it will provide self-interest excessive influence over populations and politicians, and that it will legitimately erode the faith of non-wealthy citizens that their values are fairly represented.
At the very least, we must require corporations to disclose political contributions to their shareholders. That way, shareholders can have the opportunity to sell their stock in corporations whose political speech morally offends them, and perhaps eventually mutual funds will emerge that use the moral impact of corporations’ political speech as one of their investment criteria.
The Securities and Exchange Commission holds the power to pass such a disclosure rule. Nearly 1 million comments have been submitted in favor of the rule on the SEC’s website, and investors managing assets worth some $700 billion have written the SEC to support it as well.
We must continue to put pressure on the SEC to pass this rule. More broadly, we must remain vigilant to ensure that the political speech of our society reflects the depth and breadth of our moral interests; and that we the people, of all faiths and none, set the values by which our nation is governed.
Aryeh Klapper is an Orthodox rabbi and dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership. He is the author of “Toward a Jewish Perspective on the Role of Money in Politics,” part of a volume of 10 theological perspectives on Faith, Money and Politics published by Auburn Seminary, from which this is excerpted.