The change may be politically expedient, but it will have grave costs. Conservatives once understood that free markets are an engine that produces widespread prosperity — and that government meddling is too often a wrench in the works. Choosing winners and losers, and otherwise substituting the preferences of lawmakers and bureaucrats for the logic of supply and demand, interferes with the economy’s ability to meet people’s material needs. If Republicans continue down this path, the result will be fewer jobs, higher prices, less consumer choice and a hampering of the unforeseen innovations that make our lives better all the time.
But conservatives are turning on more than markets; they may be turning on the rule of law itself. The First Amendment prohibits the government from abridging people’s ability to speak, publish, broadcast and petition for a redress of grievances, precisely because the American founders saw criticizing one’s rulers as a God-given right. Drawing attention to errors and advocating a better path forward are some of the core mechanisms by which we, the people, hold our government to account. The use of state power to punish someone for disfavored political speech is a gross violation of that ideal.
The American economy is rife with cronyism, like subsidies or regulatory exemptions, that gives some businesses advantages not available to all. This, too, makes a mockery of free markets and rule of law, transferring wealth from taxpayers and consumers to politically connected elites. But while ending cronyism is a worthy goal, selectively revoking privileges from companies that fall out of favor with the party in power is not good-government reform.
One might doubt the retaliatory nature of Republicans’ corporate speech reversal, but for their inability to quit stepping in front of cameras and stating the quiet part aloud. In the very act of signing the law that does away with Disney’s special-purpose district and several others, Mr. DeSantis said this: “You’re a corporation based in Burbank, Calif., and you’re going to marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state. We view that as a provocation, and we’re going to fight back against that.”
If government power can be used for brazen attacks on American companies and nonprofits, what can’t it be used for? If it is legitimate for politicians to retaliate against groups for political speech, is it also legitimate to retaliate against individuals? (As Senator Mitt Romney once said, “Corporations are people, my friend.”) And if even the right to speak out is not held sacred, what chance do the people have to resist an authoritarian turn?
Conservatives, confronting these questions, once championed free markets and limited government as essential bulwarks against tyranny. Discarding those commitments is not a small concession to changing times but an abject desecration, for cheap political gain, of everything they long claimed to believe.
For decades, the fusionist governing philosophy — which, in bringing together the values of individual freedom and traditional morality, charges government with protecting liberty so that the people will be free to pursue virtuous lives — bound conservatives together and gave the Republican Party a coherent animating force. That philosophy would reject the idea that political officials should have discretion over the positions that companies are allowed to take or the views that people are allowed to express.