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Op-Ed submission was rejected by the Foundation For Economic Education for being too “abstract” and “academic”. The corresponding paper proposal for George Mason was also rejected. I am currently working on another proposal for GMU focused on intellectual property.

Introduction:

Bruce Yandle’s Bootlegger and Baptist (1983)  theory of regulation presents a practical explanation for why such unorthodox coalitions are effective vehicles for camouflaging rent-seeking behavior by a firm. In brief, armed with the public appeal of the moral arguments posited by the Baptists, the Bootleggers can quietly lurk in the shadows, funding initiatives that will advance their self-interest. In other words, the ethical advocates create a smokescreen that provides cover for the business interests, superficially obscuring the stigma of corporate advocacy, since few examples of political action invoke the ire of the average citizen than policy campaigns that line the pockets of big business.

           The trend of “woke capitalism”, however, is bringing the Bootleggers out of shadows and into plain sight. CEOs are now openly standing in unison with political activists, speaking out against topics ranging from police brutality to environmental issues. The Bootleggers can work openly with the Baptists to promote a positive image while still silently providing monetary support in the background. Moreover, the social justice messaging of “Woke Capitalism” extends beyond corporate activism and is observable in the product market and advertising. Some companies, for example, adopt marketing that emphasizes social consciousness to secure the business of Gen-Z. A clear example is Gillette’s 2019 advertising campaign addressing “toxic masculinity”. Typically, companies use this tactic to target younger consumers with higher preferences for ethical products and brand authenticity, requiring companies to go beyond philanthropy and mandating community services hours for their employees; their woke ethics are thereby conveyed in their branding.

The Four Main Categories of Woke Capitalistic Coalitions:

           The most recent alliances forged between business interests and political activists take the form of four main taxonomical categories. Some of the various types of Bootlegger and Baptist coalitions feature collaboration between firms and activists. Other coalition types  form within the technocratic structure of the corporation or emerge between different departments within the organization. Woke coalitions thus have several notable classifications of “woke” corporate alliances. Two further subcategories include proactive and reactive forms of rent-seeking.

Reactive Coalition Models:

           The reactive models for “woke” coalitions include two subtypes of collective action organization, the interaction between external actors and collaboration between internal employees. The first variety of reactive coalitions are rent-seeking alliances formed to restore the company from a sullied reputation caused by criticism, the objective being to mitigate the loss of sales and reputation amid public controversy. Some firms thus attempt to distance themselves from the controversy through their activistic partnerships. By way of example, Bank of America in the past was accused of engaging in “discriminatory” lending practices. To counteract this negative publicity, last year BOA pledged to donate $1 Billion over the next four years to community programs to address economic and racial inequality. Such an act of philanthropy can easily make the general public forget about the firm’s past indiscretions.

The second type of reactive “woke” coalitions are the intracompany factions designed to divert attention from potentially costly internal controversies. In instances of hostile work environment ligation, the legal team, the human resources department, and executive management band together to deescalate the publicity nightmare. Human Resources and management work together to legally distance the company from a harassment incident and shield executive management from more scrutiny and accountability. Legal navigates the statutory and tort concerns and works internally to establish an anti-harassment campaign intracompany. A prime example of an internal diversionary coalition was Vice media’s response to sexual harassment claims. After settling several cases, the company decided to form an advisory board to educate employees on diversity and proper workplace deportment. Even if such an initiative on the part of the human resources department failed to soften the bad publicity, at least it may decrease the probability of another incident.

Reactive Coalition Models:

Finally, the last two variants of “woke” coalitions aligning business interests with moral advocates to facilitate proactive forms of rent-seeking. Similarly, these proactive coalitions can be delineated into examples of internal and external collaboration models. Proactive partnerships form to capture potential gains and avert the costs of prospective controversies. The most salient example of such external cooperation would be firms standing behind a woke cause, anticipating that such an alliance will obscure the firm attempting to shape current regulation (regulatory capture).  A notable example was detailed in the Fall 2021 issue of Regulation magazine, which showed how providers of cloud computing services IBM and Oracle joined forces in 2017 to advocate for the passage of  the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA); effectively becoming bedfellows with various factions of human rights activists. Both laws intended to attribute liability to digit platforms for any user content that promotes sex trafficking. The article’s author Thomas A. Lambert speculates that IBM and Oracle could have done this with the hopes crafting potential exceptions to the platform liability portions of SESTA and FOSTA.

Additionally, we cannot forget the proactive inter-department coalitions that are emerging within corporations. For example, several companies are hiring diversity and inclusion “coaches” as a peripheral subset of human resources. The demand for this job role has become so prevalent that a number of colleges offer programs to become a certified “diversity practitioner”. The human resources department defends the existence of these staff members by emphasizing the need to educate employees to avoid instances of harassment and discrimination. The diversity coaches preach the virtues of cultural sensitivity and other tenants of the “woke” philosophy, thus producing a self-reinforcing spiral justifying further diversity initiatives.

Conclusion:

 Superficially, these alliances between big business and “woke” activists seem relatively benign, but in reality, these coalitions have profound consequences for the integrity of capitalism and the rule of law. The four types of woke B&B coalitions described above undermine capitalism and the rule of law because woke capitalism has made it easier than ever for business interests to create the façade of morality but are unjustly bending the rules-of-the game in their favor. Wokeism provides the veil obscuring corporate America’s hand in the legislative till. Generating more anti-competitive laws that undermine both the rule of law and free trade. 

The emphasis on firms getting involved with “woke” causes not only disguises crony capitalism and rent-seeking behavior, but also distracts companies from their primary custodial duty to their shareholders. As Nobel laureate Milton Friedman expresses in his own Friedman Doctrine , a firm has a duty to maximize its profits for its shareholders. After all, these individuals have invested in the company expecting a higher return. Without this financial support the firm could not achieve its current level of success. Diverting funds that could be used for investment in capital to increase productive efficiency for political activism is tantamount to theft.

5 thoughts on “Editorial Graveyard- Part III: The Bootlegger and Baptists of Woke Capitalism

  1. This was excellent! I was definitely looking forward to it.

    Here’s an interesting question : does what is incurred for “bending the rules-of-the game” on average exceed the cost of being “woke?” I know that many firms have received considerable blowback from consumers for their overt alliances with political movements. But these same firms are often simultaneously (and perversely, as you noted) benefiting from their affairs behind the smokescreen. I’m presuming that the gain from the latter generally outweighs the cost of pursuing the former?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All of that depends upon consumer preferences.

      I would assume most consumers are pragmatists that are middle-of-the-road ideologically and are more concerned with product quality than ethically produced commodities.

      Then again, younger consumers tend to be more of an exception to this rule. As their idealism fades, product integrity will become more of a concern.

      I would surmise that most consumers don’t care with a growing minority of shoppers that find corporate woke pandering to be distasteful. Over time I would guess more people will take objection to this variant of rent-seeking.

      I as a worker and a consumer am impact to a far greater degree by the “smokescreen” as an employee than as a shopper. Since it is much easier to but another brand of toothpaste than to find a new job.

      Liked by 1 person

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