Would it surprise you to learn that the phrase “virtue signaling” entered the public vernacular less than five years ago? The underlying behavior has always existed, but it only achieved a level of ubiquity and visibility wide enough to warrant its own sobriquet after the emergence of social media. Like kudzu, ivy, and honeysuckle, virtue signaling has spread rapidly and invasively throughout our society, and in some circles, a failure to properly virtue-signal is itself a virtue signal of the wrong sort.

It has quickly gone on to infect corporate America. We are now living in the era of the corporate virtue signal. Big Business has figured out that marketing via social media is as vital today as print and television advertising have been in past decades.

Some companies have figured out how to do it without playing partisan games or, well, engaging in blatant virtue-signaling. Wendy’s, for example, has some savage geniuses writing its twitter feed.

Some companies have brought their already-established corporate values (values which themselves are often tied to marketing and brand identity) forward into 2019. Chic-Fil-A still famously never opens on Sunday, and Ben and Jerry’s still famously makes politically-themed flavors.

Such are marketing decisions based on the owners’ values, and their impact on the companies’ bottom lines is determined by the free market i.e. whether those decisions draw more consumers than they alienate.

We are seeing, unfortunately, a different sort of virtue signal now, one not directed at consumers, but instead directed at lawmakers. Witness the promised boycott of further production work in the state of Georgia by Netflix, Disney, and a host of other media companies, in protest of Georgia’s enactment of a fetal-heartbeat law. This move is being lauded by the political Left, obviously, and decried by the Right, obviously.

Companies are (well, should be) free to act as they deem best for their shareholders (and if the companies’ bigwigs act in ways that run contrary to shareholder interests, there are market mechanisms that will address that), and from a business angle, such corporate virtue signals will be judged by their impact on the bottom line, i.e. whether the act draws more customers than it loses. Libertarians recognize all this, and are on-board with companies doing as they wish.

It’s everyone else that’s a hypocrite here.

Such actions by big companies are not just intended to make a play to the consumers in a free market. They are intended to influence policy. The aforementioned Georgia boycott is intended to inflict economic pressure on Georgia’s lawmakers, in order to get this law reversed. Again, libertarians will be OK with companies acting thus, even if they disagree with the positions taken or advocated. It’s just another form of free speech, freedom of association, and economic liberty.

It’s the people who reject the “corporations are people” concept, a long-existing idea that was affirmed by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, and who cheerlead corporate virtue-signaling intended to affect policy, that are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. Ditto for those who support companies acting as they wish in a free market, but also demanding that government intervene if those companies (Facebook is the prime target) act in a way that abridges free speech on their platforms.

How many “get corporate money out of politics” progressives are on-board with this Georgia boycott? How many are demanding that big companies to join the BDS movement against Israel, but don’t give a hoot about companies doing business in and with Saudi Arabia (which has an atrocious human rights record)? Conversely, how many want laws passed prohibiting companies engaging in BDS?

Pay attention to movies, television shows, and advertising. All are deeply suffused with virtue signals, and usually of a progressive flavor. This is deliberate, and a combination of proactive “lets show we’re on board with woke” and defensive “lets make sure we don’t give the screeching hordes something to complain about.” It’s also a means to pressure lawmakers to alter the political landscape in favor of protected classes.

Take a look at the corporate virtue signaling involving gun rights and gun control, deeply intertwined as it is with politics. Many companies were pressured to boycott of the NRA in various ways, in an attempt to tilt the national dialogue towards greater restrictions on gun rights.

I’m fine with organized boycotts of private companies, as long as the line between voluntary boycott and government coercion is not crossed. I’m fine with all these forms of political speech, by individuals, by groups of individuals acting in concert, and by groups of individuals acting under a corporate structure. I’m fine with companies choosing to do business wherever they want for whatever reason they want, and for the benefits or fallout to be imposed by consumers. I’m fine with political lobbying, including campaign donations, by individuals, by groups of individuals acting in concert, and by groups of individuals acting under a corporate structure (I draw the line at bribery, because that’s a violation of politicians’ obligations to their constituents and to the structure of the nation).

I’m probably in a small minority in all this, because most people are all in favor of political activities that work for their team but get squirrely or worse when such work for the other team.

Boycotts, choosing where to do business, virtue-signals, and the like are all political speech by corporations, and they’re demanded by many of the same progressives who see the Citizens United ruling as one of the greatest travesties in recorded history. They’ll claim there’s a difference between boycotting a state that writes laws they don’t like and spending money on lobbyists or making campaign donations, but all are money-based pressures on politicians. This makes them all political speech, which is protected by the Constitution. Decrying corporate money in politics while applauding corporations boycotting Georgia over the fetal-heartbeat bill is the height of hypocrisy.

Politics is awash in hypocrisy, and most people only find hypocrisy problematic in others’ behavior. But, if you stand opposed to the Citizens United ruling, if you don’t believe that, in terms of free speech rights, corporations are people, don’t expect me to have a shred of interest in your arguments favoring any sort of corporate activism or virtue signaling.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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