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Corporate Political Activity and Non-Shareholder Agency Costs

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The Supreme Court’s controversial decision in Citizens United, much like its previous decision in Bellotti, was based in part on the notion that dissenting shareholders are sufficiently protected by state corporate law and the priority it accords to shareholder interests. There has been much debate in recent years over whether the Court’s reasoning was sound. Absent from this conversation is any discussion of the interests of non-shareholders, such as employees and creditors, even as their importance to the corporation has become increasingly recognized in recent years.

The courts have never considered the problem of dissenting non-shareholders in assessing regulatory restrictions on corporate political activity. This Article argues that they should. It is the first to explore the potential agency costs that corporate political activity creates for non-shareholders, and in so doing, it lays out two main arguments. First, these agency costs may be significant, as I illustrate through several case studies. Second, neither corporate law nor private ordering provides solutions to this agency problem. Indeed, because the theoretical arguments for shareholder primacy in corporate law are largely inapplicable for corporate political activity, corporate law may actually serve to exacerbate the agency problems that such activity creates for non-shareholders. Private ordering, which could take the form of contractual covenants restricting corporate political activity, also seems unlikely to solve this problem, due to the large economic frictions facing such covenants.

These findings have potentially significant ramifications for the Court’s corporate political speech jurisprudence, particularly as laid out in Bellotti and Citizens United. One logical conclusion is that these decisions, regardless of their constitutional merit, make for very bad public policy, insofar as they preempt much-needed regulatory solutions for reducing non-shareholder agency costs, and thus may have the effect of inhibiting efficient corporate ordering and capital formation. Another outgrowth of this analysis is that non-shareholder agency costs may provide an important rationale for government regulation of corporate political activity.

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