“The market is rational and government is dumb,” Dick Armey, one of the leaders of the 1994 Republican Revolution, liked to say. That used to be a cornerstone of conservatism. Today, it’s increasingly the reverse. While they still mouth free-market platitudes, Republicans fulminate against corporate America for taking political positions that they oppose—without any apparent awareness, or a refusal to recognize, that such decisions reveal the free market in action: Conservatives’ culture-war positions are broadly toxic to a majority of American consumers.
The latest example comes courtesy of Disney, which after initially staying quiet on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law condemned it because “it could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, nonbinary, and transgender kids and families.” (That, in fact, was the bill’s ill-hidden point.) State legislators responded this week by punishing Disney: The Senate and House both voted to revoke Disney World’s special tax designation, which, as The New York Times explains, is “a privilege that Disney has held for 55 years, effectively allowing the company to self-govern its 25,000-acre theme park complex.” Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law on Friday afternoon.*
Conservatives rejoiced. “If corporations choose to exit the free market by seeking media and legal dispensation from anti-market Leftists pushing radical social values, don’t count on those of us who love free markets to defend you,” political arsonist Ben Shapiro tweeted on Thursday. “F*** around and find out.” This perfectly captures the thrust of GOP logic: Rather than wait to see whether the free market will punish companies for speaking out against regressive right-wing legislation, the party instead will wield the dumb government against these rational actors.
Shapiro is just the blunt end of the spear. Fox News agitator Laura Ingraham had previously warned that if companies like Disney didn’t “stay in their lane”—focusing on maximizing profit, but shutting up about politics—“everything will be on the table” if Republicans return to power in November, including “your copyright and trademark protection, your special status within certain states, and even your corporate structure itself.” GOP Senator Marsha Blackburn denounced Disney’s criticism as “how the woke left extremists are using corporations to push their agenda.”
It wasn’t long ago that a state’s major employer publicly opposing legislation could stir corporate-cozy Republicans to adjust course. As recently as 2015, then–Indiana Governor Mike Pence—no culture-war slouch—signed a revised “religious freedom” law when the original drew outrage from, among others, the Indianapolis-based National Collegiate Athletic Association, because it legalized anti-LGBTQ discrimination. The NCAA was also a key influencer of North Carolina’s decision to water down its infamous anti-trans “bathroom bill” in 2017.
But this was before the Trumpian weaponization of political power became a higher principle in the Republican Party than limited government. You can trace the evolution through subsequent clashes over Georgia’s voting restrictions last year and now over Texas’s anti-abortion law: Republicans threatened legislative punishment when Major League Baseball pulled its All Star Game from Atlanta and did the same when Citibank stated that it would cover expenses for its Texas-based employees to travel out of state for an abortion. But Florida, where DeSantis’s 2024 presidential ambitions are as subtle as his culture-war bomb throwing, took the next step of actually delivering on its threats.
Here’s the irony, though: While Disney controls municipal functions in Reedy Creek, its special tax district, it also foots the bill—for the fire department, sewer treatment, and so on. The elimination of that special status thus will save Disney $163 million annually, passing on $1 billion in debt to taxpayers and forcing massive local tax hikes. So what in the name of Adam Smith’s invisible hand is going on here?
The bill’s supporters mouth words from the party’s old hymnal, arguing that Reedy Creek distorts the free market by giving Disney unfair advantages. But both the move’s timing and less guarded rhetoric belie that story. “If Disney wants to embrace woke ideology, it seems fitting that they should be regulated by Orange County,” state Representative Spencer Roach, the first lawmaker to suggest revoking the special status, tweeted last month. Randy Fine, another legislator who sponsored the bill, opined that if Disney executives wanted to “consider how they behave,” they may yet be able to retain their special privileges.
Conservatives remind one of Finley Peter Dunne’s definition of a fanatic: They are only doing what the market, in this instance, would do if it knew the facts of the case. And that’s the crux of their problem. The free market isn’t going to penalize Disney any more than it will reprove Citibank or that it did Major League Baseball or the National Football League over kneeling during the anthem. The polling on LGBTQ rights is loud and clear.
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The right’s conception of the free market, like its culture-war grievances, is rooted in the latter half of the twentieth century, when many LGBTQ people stayed in the closet and corporations had a blinkered focus on their bottom lines. The GOP’s social and economic agendas could easily mesh because market dictates largely didn’t clash with traditional mores.
But twenty-first century America is more diverse and accepting, a change which the free market logically reflects. You can see it in the growing corporate focus on Environmental, Social, and Governance criteria and, most prominently, in the Business Roundtable’s 2019 declaration that the purpose of a corporation was no longer to focus exclusively on bottom-line shareholder value, but on the interests of other stakeholders such as employees, consumers, and the community. Conservatives decrying this shift as “woke” corporate infiltration and subjugation are ignoring a simpler explanation: Companies are responding to market forces.
Compounding the injury with insult, the Republicans who most yearn to make America “great” again—aging, rural, white men—are at the bottom of the consumer totem pole and lack the financial clout to swing the free market. “Corporations consider it good for their brand, and for business, to cater to younger consumers (and their own younger employees) that tend to embrace social liberalism and the latest fashionable causes,” National Review’s Rich Lowry observed in Politico on Thursday. Rational, market-following CEOs having thus gotten away from them, these Republicans have to resort to government power instead. They are running the same plays here that they have in electoral politics, trying to use the levers of government to retain power rather than responding to changing public values.
The difference, of course, is that Republicans don’t have a gross structural advantage in the free market like they do in the American political system. So they now stand futilely athwart corporate America, yelling Stop.
* This article has been updated.