Washington has already tried to use nominally voluntary measures to control corporations’ freedom to describe their products in the way they see fit. In a memo for the Heritage Foundation, Diane Katz pointed out that the Obama administration hasn’t shrunk in the past from bullying companies into adopting its talking points. For instance, the Interagency Working Group — started in 2009 to make suggestions about how to curb childhood obesity — pushed for the establishment of voluntary limits on how many calories and grams of fat per serving would be permissible in food products advertised on children’s television programs. It sounded fairly benign (who wouldn’t want five-year-olds to spend less time mesmerized by ads for sugary drinks and candy?) but the truth was more insidious.
“The Federal Trade Commission, in fact, sought comment on whether the IWG guidelines would suffer from First Amendment issues if enacted into law,” writes Katz. The guidelines appeared to be send a message to the food industry: Tighter strictures are coming, by hook or by crook, and your only decision is on whether you will adopt them voluntarily or involuntarily. As Katz asserts in her memo: “Government officials on more than one occasion have alluded to the potential for regulation if the industry does not voluntarily comply with advertising limits.”
Basham argues — convincingly, in my opinion — that the black-helicopter mindset isn’t totally far-fetched when it comes to subtle government intrusion regarding corporate free speech. And corporations’ capitulation could jeopardize their grounds for defending their rights later.
“Each time you either accept or you volunteer for some kind of punishment in this way, some infringement of your corporate freedom, then the next time it’s much harder to say, on principled grounds, ‘We object to what you’re telling us to do — or what you’re advising us to do voluntarily,’” Basham says. Besides being obviously problematic for people who think the First Amendment is a good idea, this new trend could restrict consumer choices and minimize corporate responsibility. Food crusaders may have romantic notions about the good-heartedness of the Washington regulatory class, but that’s mostly misplaced. The city’s “cesspool of politics and deal-making and interest-group lobbying and all the rest of it,” as Basham describes it, could undermine consumers’ interests by making them vulnerable to the back-room dealings that often make regulations a cushy deal for the regulated. And giving that kind of influence to regulators undermines the direct line of communication between producer and customer, and moves the onus for product safety from the corporation to the government — eroding corporate responsibility.
So what seems to be a moment of awkward and uncharacteristic big-heartedness from the Coca-Cola company is probably anything but — it appears to be a kowtowing capitulation to an ever-expanding regulatory state that treats its inhabitants like children and its corporations like crooks.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.