Delaware Chief Justice Leo Strine and Nicholas Walker recently posted an article (forthcoming in the Cornell Law Review) entitled Conservative Collision Course?: The Tension between Conservative Corporate Law Theory and Citizens United, which is available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2481061, and argues that:
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.
As promised, I've knocked out a reply, which has just been posted to SSRN and is entitled Corporate Social Responsibility in the Night Watchman State: A Comment on Strine & Walker, and is available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2494003:
Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo Strine and Nicholas Walter have recently published an article arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC undermines a school of thought they call “conservative corporate law theory.” They argue that conservative corporate law theory justifies shareholder primacy on grounds that government regulation is a superior constraint on the externalities caused by corporate conduct than social responsibility norms. Because Citizens United purportedly has unleashed a torrent of corporate political campaign contributions intended to undermine regulations, they argue that the decision undermines the viability of conservative corporate law theory. As a result, they contend, Citizens United “logically supports the proposition that a corporation’s governing board must be free to think like any other citizen and put a value on things like the quality of the environment, the elimination of poverty, the alleviation of suffering among the ill, and other values that animate actual human beings.”
This essay argues that Strine and Walker’s analysis is flawed in three major respects. First, “conservative corporate law theory” is a misnomer. They apply the term to such a wide range of thinkers as to make it virtually meaningless. More important, scholars who range across the political spectrum embrace shareholder primacy. Second, Strine and Walker likely overstate the extent to which Citizens United will result in significant erosion of the regulatory environment that constrains corporate conduct. Finally, the role of government regulation in controlling corporate conduct is just one of many arguments in favor of shareholder primacy. Many of those arguments would be valid even in a night watchman state in which corporate conduct is subject only to the constraints of property rights, contracts, and tort law. As such, even if Strine and Walker were right about the effect of Citizens United on the regulatory state, conservative corporate law theory would continue to favor shareholder primacy over corporate social responsibility.
Now it just needs to find a law review home.