Citizens United as Neoliberal Jurisprudence: The Resurgence of Economic Theory
74 Pages Posted: 9 Jan 2011 Last revised: 6 Feb 2013
Date Written: January 7, 2011
On January 21st of 2010, the Roberts Court freed corporations to spend unlimited general treasury funds on political advertisements, including those that mention candidates by name and those that are run in the weeks before an election. Shown by recent polls to be one of the most unpopular cases in U.S. history, Citizens United v. FEC promises to set the tone for the Roberts Court’s treatment of money-in-politics cases. This article shows that Citizens’ holding and reasoning flow directly from neoclassical economic theory, which assumes a perfect (political) market and resists government intervention aimed at correcting power imbalances and anti-competitive behavior. This laissez-faire stance is not new to the Court, but it had been in decline during Chief Justice Rehnquist’s long tenure. Citizens resuscitates a line of neoclassical jurisprudence that traces back to the mid 1970s, in particular to Buckley v. Valeo and First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti. After summarizing the neoclassical assumptions of Citizens, this Article provides a thorough explanation and critique of these past cases which, in essence, imported economic theory to determine the meaning of democracy. Justice Stevens’ dissenting opinion in Citizens, and alternatives to neoclassical ideology more generally, are discussed in conclusion. In sum, this Article offers two basic contributions to the literature, the first descriptive and the second normative: It explains the neoclassical underpinnings of the line of cases that culminate in Citizens, thus offering a new way to understand the dominant ideology on the Roberts Court; and it provides an argument, rooted in institutional economic theory and separatist philosophy, that the market sphere should not govern the political sphere.
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