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Reedy Creek and the San Antonio Chik-fil-A
Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is still doing the right thing.
Florida has just passed a law ending the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID).
The RCID is a special area of Florida where the Disney Company is the government. Disney paves the roads, Disney writes the zoning code and enforces it against itself, Disney runs the utilities (they have the power to build their own nuclear power plant!), and Disney serves as the legal police force. People sometimes refer to mall cops as “Mickey Mouse cops” to suggest that they’re fake, but actual Mickey Mouse cops in the RCID can put you in actual jail.
You may recognize this for what it is: one of the most obvious cases of crony capitalism in history. It’s the kind of thing you see in cyberpunk dystopias where corporations have displaced governments. Universal Orlando has to go through the county planning office and get their approval before it can build new stuff. Disney just has to ask another part of Disney. If the Hilton has a pothole in front of their hotel, they have to call public works. Disney can just fill the pothole itself. It isn’t a fair and level playing field, and it never has been. The RCID should never have existed, and wise legislators would have ended it decades ago.
Instead, they passed a bill ending it this week. (The bill takes effect next year.) While officials are saying the correct words about crony capitalism, it is obvious why the RCID suddenly came into political focus now, not 10 or 20 years ago: Disney started a street fight with the elected government of Florida over the recently-passed Parental Rights In Education Act (more widely known as the “Don’t Say Gay” or “Anti-Groomer” bill), and Gov. Ron DeSantis responded by declaring war. DeSantis called a special session to consider eliminating, not all Florida special taxing districts, but only those created 55 years ago or more. The Reedy Creek Improvement District was created… exactly 55 years ago. Even in the interview I linked, the correct words about “level playing fields” and “the best interests of Floridians” are immediately followed by a syntactically-unconnected-but-obviously-related mention of “Burbank executives sexualizing our children.”
Some on the Right are freaking out about this. David French’s reaction is typical of this strain of thought:
One of the bewildering things about being a conservative in a populist age is the sheer speed at which populists will shift their opinions, including on allegedly bedrock constitutional values, to satisfy the popular bloodlust of the moment. I’m old enough, for example, to remember all the way back to 2019. In March the San Antonio City Council voted to bar Chick-fil-A from San Antonio International Airport. The reason? It opposed Chick-fil-A’s alleged “legacy of anti-LGBT behavior.” Republicans were rightly furious at the decision. […]
Let’s fast-forward three short years and move states, from Florida to Texas… Florida, led by Governor Ron DeSantis, is overtly and explicitly attempting to punish Disney for the company’s opposition to Florida House Bill 1557. Florida became San Antonio, except on a much bigger scale, to thunderous online right-wing applause.
…they’re dead wrong on this issue. “You get what you ask for” or “they will deserve it” are not principles of constitutional law or a free society. In fact, the opposite is true. The First Amendment affirmatively protects the right of private institutions to engage in political speech, and that protection extends to safeguarding them from government reprisal for their speech.
On the one hand, I agree with French’s principle: “They deserve it” is not a principle of constitutional law or a free society.
However, unlike French, I’m pretty sanguine about Reedy Creek going down in flames. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is… still doing the right thing! I feel a lot like @Eigenrobot:
There is almost no political victory I wouldn’t trade for 28-year nonrenewable copyright. If anti-wokeism helps bring it about, I will hug it and kiss it on the lips. If the tables turn and wokeism helps restore Queen Anne’s Copyright, I will hug Ibram X. Kendi and kiss him on the lips. I will take any allies in my war on eternal copyright.
And, here’s the thing: that’s politics. Never in history has a mass political movement achieved any goal (good or bad) for pure motives. Individuals within movements often have good intentions. Yet the movement always necessarily makes common cause with people who do not.
The anti-abortion movement has lots of people in it who want to save babies from being murdered. There are also some people who consider themselves allied to the anti-abortion movement who just want to punish lower-class promiscuous women by forcing them to bear children.
The pro-abortion movement has lots of people in it who want to protect the power of every woman to determine her own destiny, which is a pure motive (even though their method is an atrocity). It also has some allies who just want to use women as disposable receptacles for their orgasms, as feminist Andrea Dworkin pointed out in the 1980s.
The Civil Rights Movement had lots of people who wanted to treat black people equally. It also had a lot of people who thought Jim Crow went too far but who still opposed interracial marriage. It also had a few straight-up communist agitators who hoped to destabilize the American government. The movement needed all those people to get the football over the 18-yard box or whatever why did I even attempt a football metaphor, and so the people with pure and good motives made common cause with the ones who didn’t. That’s politics.
The Great Man of the last century said it best: when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union—an obviously evil empire run by a dictator arguably more bloodied than the Reich—Winston Churchill forged an alliance with Joseph Stalin. When called out on it, Churchill quipped, “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.” Indeed, we likely would not have won World War II without the Soviets.
Even as we agree with David French that there is an illiberal faction on today’s American Right that is both hypocritical and dangerous, we can—and should—make common cause with them to bring an end to the Reedy Creek Improvement District, because the Reedy Creek Improvement District is bad. The RCID’s destruction is a victory worth celebrating, perhaps with a note of caution, but not with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Right-wing critics who condemn purity culture in the Church err when they demand perfect purity from the policymaking process as well.
…oh, it’s so tempting to just end there, with that highly defensible conclusion and a morally satisfying resolution of cognitive dissonance. It’s such a me place to end! I can condemn both sides and sit comfortably above the fray! It’s so responsible! It’s so credible! Buuuuut, I just… aggggh! Okay!
Beyond the inevitability of impurity, the Floridians don’t just have a better goal in mind than the San Antonians who tried to ban Chik-fil-A. The Floridians have purer motives, too. David French’s critique still has some salience, and the right-wing illiberalism he’s talking about is broadly real… … … but but but:
First, in the San Antonio incident, the city government took official action to punish a corporation for activities wholly unrelated to the government of San Antonio. (San Antonio was directly reacting to new evidence about Chick-fil-A’s history of donating to Christian charities that San Antonio regarded as anti-gay.) Chick-fil-A had no quarrel with San Antonio and had taken no public policy action at all. San Antonio struck first, picking on a company it just didn’t like.
In Florida, however, Disney chose to enter the political arena. Disney attempted to exercise political power over a bill that had nothing to do with Disney’s business interests. In doing so, Disney was attempting to extend its political power, beyond its long-recognized right to advance its own business interests. Disney now wanted its internal corporate morality to also control social policy for all the people of Florida. That was a bold move.
If you attempt to acquire—really, usurp—new political power, which was not granted to you or recognized by the People, and they acquiesce, then hooray for you, you now have new powers. But if the People don’t like it, then it is entirely within the People’s proper authority to bring you to heel. You will be denied the new powers you sought. You may even be deprived of some political powers you already had, because the People no longer trust you to wield it responsibly.
In the United States, we say that the People are “sovereign,” but we don’t often think about what that actually means. A “sovereign,” in political theory and the law of nations, has final and total authority over how political power is exercised within the sovereign’s domain. The only constraints on that absolute authority are those constraints which the sovereign has imposed upon itself (for example, through the Bill of Rights1) and those constraints which are implicit in divine law.2 A sovereign that does not police would-be usurpers—usurpers like, in this case, the Disney Corporation—will not remain sovereign for long.
Disney’s attempt to control political outcomes within Florida made it a threat and a legitimate target in a way that Chick-fil-A, which did not attempt to assert power or affect San Antonio at all, simply did not. San Antonians were using their power offensively. Floridians are using it defensively. Even if we reversed all the political alignments in this case, that’s a purer motive.
The second reason Floridians-Against-Disney have a purer motive than San-Antonians-Against-Chikin is related. Concentrated corporate power has, since 1980, become a broad and comprehensive threat to the American way of life. This is true across a vast range of issues, from the obvious (the power to freeze their opponents out of the entire financial system for any or no reason with zero due process) to the subtle (a large component of the present inflation crisis likely comes from a wave of mergers and acquisitions before and during the pandemic, allowing newly-monopolized industries to raise prices3).
Corporate power needs to be confronted very broadly and very profoundly. While no one with half a brain wants to return to the era of the Civil Aeronautics Board, it is time to recognize that the Reaganist impulse to unshackle corporations has gone too far. We should have loosened the leashes we kept on corporations. Instead, we removed them altogether, and now the titans are rampaging across the land, squashing the peasants between their toes. The pendulum needs to start swinging back the other direction. This has been increasingly clear for a number of years. Killing a blatantly crony capitalist arrangement is a tiny baby’s first teetering step—but a promising one.
If it took this particular confrontation, over a social policy bill, for Floridians to finally sit up and notice that corporations are running amuck, well… isn’t that understandable? Isn’t that exactly what you’d expect?
Americans, and especially Republicans, have been really devoted to the idea of Total Market Freedom for a really long time.4 Those ideas, sunk down deep into the folds of the brains of millions of voters and legislators, are not changed or challenged easily. Voters do not like changing their mind, and will make considerable efforts to ignore problems with their position. The thing that usually forces the confrontation is a direct, highly visible threat to something the voter cares about. This can bring about a “Road to Damascus” conversion, where the scales fall from the self-blinded voter’s eyes, and she suddenly recognizes not only the immediate threat, but the much broader context in which that threat arose. Which I guess is a fancy way of saying that it took Disney wielding its vast and overweening powers against something conservatives cared about for conservatives to notice that corporations, across the board, have vast and overweening power in our society. Now that they have seen it, they can’t unsee it, and so their whole orientation toward business begins to shift.
A right wing that has long recognized and feared the power of Big Government is learning to recognize and fear the power of Big Corporate, too. This is not simple, petty retaliation, like what we saw in San Antonio. It’s recognition, remolding, and response. We should work to ensure that this long-overdue reshaping of conservative doctrine is not overtaken by illiberal forces—forces like the Vermeulesque postliberalism that would simply remake Leviathan in Donald Trump’s image—but we should also not hesitate to applaud it, nor to push for an expanded battlefront against every corporation large enough to pose a threat to American well-being.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I dashed this one off pretty quick and had to go clean my house for the First Communion party tomorrow, and therefore reserve the right to correct typos and so forth until Monday. :)
UPDATE 25 April 2022: Changed some language about “members” of the pro-/anti-abortion movements to language about “allies,” since the actual activist members of both groups are generally very pure of motive.
French and other commentators have pointed to the 1996 Supreme Court case O’Hare v. City of Northlake to show that, actually, this kind of political retaliation is forbidden, even to the sovereign People, because it violates the First Amendment to which we have bound ourselves. I think this overreads the First Amendment. O’Hare v. Northlake was a 7-2 decision, it is true… but every member of its majority is dead or retired, and the sole surviving dissenter, Justice Thomas, is now the most influential justice on the Supreme Court.
As Justice Scalia’s dissent argued at the time, O’Hare was an unworkable error built out of recent, anachronistic precedents. (Fun fact: this dissent is the source of Scalia’s famous quote, “The Court must be living in another world. Day by day, case by case, it is busy designing a Constitution for a country I do not recognize.”) O’Hare is a recent deviation from First Amendment case law. The Thomas-Scalia view likely commands a majority of the originalist-textualist Court today, and rightly so. The People of Florida should therefore not feel bound by the Court’s overbroad interpretation of the First Amendment in that case.
Theories of sovereignty which do not believe in divine law—or even in its subordinate, the law of human nature—do not recognize any constraints on sovereign power whatsoever. Some 18th-century theorists believed Leviathan’s authority was truly absolute. If Caesar chooses to exterminate every man, woman, and child in Lakarian City to avenge the crimes of one single rebel, then that was Caesar’s sovereign right.
No one today believes that. Even professed atheists embrace some form of natural law, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The related argument that “corporate greed is causing inflation,” made by the likes of Elizabeth Warren, is indeed stupid. Corporations are exactly as greedy today as they were yesterday, a year ago, a century ago. Greed is constant. What has changed is concentrated market power, not greed.
I include myself in this. Starting at age 11 — especially the one-year period that included both the 2000 Florida Election Crisis and the September 11th attacks — I started trying to broaden my education in politics, so that I could be conversant in a range of issues, not just the social issues I’d always cared about. My entire economics education, and I am not exaggerating when I say entire, came from the Wall Street Journal editorial board. Not until AP Economics at Age 17 did I start absorbing some of the critiques. I still agree with a lot of what I learned at the Journal! But a more wretched hive of corporatism and cronyism you will never find.