The Curative Power of Law and Political Economy

Amy Kapczynski —

Ask not for whom the First Amendment tolls: It tolls for you.  Or so I argue in an essay just published at the Columbia Law Review online.  It’s called “The Lochnerized First Amendment and the FDA: Toward a More Democratic Political Economy”—a boring title for a vital and urgent problem.  Courts, speaking in the name of the First Amendment, are “freeing” us from regulatory approaches that have worked for decades to protect us from snake oil and inform us about the products we put in our bodies. How did we arrive here? And how might demo­cratic prerogatives retain control over the webs of commodity exchange upon which our lives depend?  The essay addresses these questions, trying along the way to model how law and political economy analysis can contribute to our understanding.

The FDA is a key accomplishment of both the Progressive Era and the New Deal and perhaps the most muscular of all federal agencies. It regulates one-fifth of the consumer economy, and has enjoyed extraordinarily high levels of influence and public trust throughout its long history.  This popularity may have something to do with the fact that the FDA gained its powers through successive waves of democratic demand for its intervention when “free markets” proved deadly.  (If you don’t know the story of thalidomide, which left a trail of destruction around the world in the 1950s and 1960s, here is a vivid introduction). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the FDA has also been a prime target of neoliberals, who resent its extensive powers.  Industry lobbying and sustained criticism from Chicago-school types and have had an impact; several recent laws have weakened the agency.  But the respect and support the FDA commands have made legislative assaults challenging.  Perhaps that is why industry—and industry funded groups—have invested in the use of the courts to attack its power.

What does that attack look like?  The cases are astonishing.  Some suggest that drug companies have a free speech right to market drugs for unproven uses.  These threaten the system that the FDA has used for decades to develop the evidence we need to understand whether drugs work.  Nonetheless, citing these cases, the FDA appears poised to substantially deregulate drug marketing.  New commercial speech doctrine may also be the demise of a law passed recently to protect consumers from misleading claims about supposedly low-risk tobacco products.   E-cigarette companies (mostly backed, apparently, by big tobacco) argue that Congress doesn’t have the power to force them to validate claims that their products are low risk, though we know relatively little about their long-term implications.

The logic of these cases could go quite a bit further, even undermining the FDA’s ability to regulate medicines and tobacco altogether.  I don’t spell out the many possible implications for food, supplements, and cosmetics, but you can read between the lines.

How did this happen?  Here’s where law and political economy offers important insights. If we read the cases that build this new commercial speech doctrine, cases like Virginia Pharmacy and IMS v. Sorrell, with the literature on neoliberalism in mind, we see that they have been deeply shaped by market supremacist thinking. They mobilize images of markets, subjects, and the state that are not only contestable, but deeply undemocratic.

How we might we best respond to this new and rather ghoulish First Amendment?  There are some excellent doctrinal arguments that could bring the courts back from the brink, as I describe in the essay.  Importantly, though, these cases should also cause us to rethink our needs for public infrastructure.  If courts thrust us into a world with more limited authority over private markets, we must envision a much more substantial role for the public—in this case, for example, by expanding public funding for health research. This approach would sidestep recent court decisions in addition to having far-reaching benefits for health democracy or health justice. It is also an instance of a broader point. By undermining public-oriented regulation of private companies, the advance of market supremacy inside of constitutional doctrine paradoxically pushes the campaign for democratic control up a level.  New public infrastructure that displaces or routes around an increasingly ungovernable private sector would, in addition to cutting out the profit-oriented middleman, more easily brush off a Lochnerized First Amendment.  The parallels to Medicare For All—spurred on by attacks to the ACA—are easy to see.

The piece was a response to the superb conference and volume on “Free Expression in an Age of Inequality” put on recently by Columbia Law School, Columbia Law Review, and the Knight Institute.  If you’ve read this far, you’re incurable, and you should also check out the other pieces published as part of the symposium, especially Jed Purdy’s “The Bosses Constitution.”  People often ask me for work describing how to “do LPE.”  These two pieces provide possible examples.

Amy Kapczynski (@akapczynski) is a Professor of Law at Yale Law School. 

Partisan Warriors and Political Courts

Amy Kapczynski —

Thursday’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing was a stomach churning, nauseating affair. Christine Blasey Ford laid her life on the tracks, knowing full well that trains delivering important men can rarely be stopped.  That was enough, but then came the turn:  Brett Kavanaugh, partisan warrior.  He tore into Democrats for a process almost entirely dictated by Republicans.  He seethed with explosive anger, which he weaponized to advance his own career.  He lied and evaded.  And walked away somehow having improved his chances of being appointed to the Supreme Court.

MN SUPREME COURT WIKI

If “courts are political,” do we have grounds to object to this display?  Dani Rodrik asked a similar question on Friday in a broader frame: “How do we prevent ‘the Supreme Court has always been political’ argument from morphing into ‘judicial independence and the rule of law are political charades’?  Asking for friends in Hungary, Turkey, Poland, etc.”

The question is much deeper, as he rightly points out, than our immediate American fiasco.  And it is an urgent one for the LPE crowd, raised up as we were on the insights of legal realism and critical legal studies, yet committed – as we also are – to articulating a set of claims to the right and the good that could help make our democracies more fair and just.

In the coming days and weeks, a few of us will offer some ideas on these questions to see where our conversation might lead us.  To start us off, I’ll expand a little on the epigrammatic answer I gave to Rodrik: “In a democratic system judges are not political in the way politicians are. They must hear all comers; give reasons; express a universal principle — they morph politics and produce universalizing argument.”

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What Comes After Not Enough?

Amy Kapczynski —

What might a new human rights movement look like after Occupy, Brexit, Piketty, and Trump?   Sam Moyn’s new book brings us deftly to the edge of this question, and it’s here that I want to jump in.   Not Enough offers important insights into some of the failures of the existing movement, at least in its mainstream form. Drawing on these, as well as my own experience with the access to medicines movement – a movement that has invoked human rights but never defined itself through that idiom – I’ll offer a few thoughts on the shape of a human rights yet to come.

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One central aim of Moyn’s new book is to demarcate two kinds of left political thought – one organized around distribution and another organized around sufficiency.   Do we demand equality? Or do we demand enough? The key failure of the human rights movement, he argues, is that it has settled for the latter, and a particularly stingy version at that. As market fundamentalism advanced, human rights spun out a minimalist utopia. Socioeconomic rights took shape as demands to a “core minimum.” The movement demanded a “just enough” that in its very nature could never be enough, nor just.

As Paul O’Connell noted last week, Moyn’s is really only a history of part of the human rights movement. It has never been clear exactly how to define “the movement,” and many local groups make radical and even revolutionary claims under the sign of human rights. Moyn’s framing is not, however, without justification: he trains his attention on the institutions and documents that many people treat as the “core” or most consequential aspect of the movement. Implicitly, this reproduces a status hierarchy that I’ll argue in a minute must be undone if human rights is to be remade. But it also allows Moyn to show why we need a new human rights. The mainstream human rights movement came to prominence by embracing a certain kind of minimalist anti-politics, and trading off the best for the good.

This mainstream paradigm is inadequate to the challenges we face today. Moyn is right: We need a new human rights, one that does more than seek to “avert disaster and abjection.” This new version should embrace the politics of “material equality.” It must also demand deeper political accountabilities, inventing structures to facilitate a “welfare world” rather than accepting the pastiche of participation offered by international institutions to date.

What might a human rights movement look like that was more adequate to the challenges of our time? All of this, I think, and a few things more.

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Law and the Political Economy of Technology

Amy Kapczynski –

In April, Jack Balkin, Yochai Benkler and I convened a workshop on the law and political economy of technology at Yale Law School. Participants drafted thought papers, which we spent the better part of two days discussing.  In the coming weeks, many participants will post revised papers or reflections in a series of posts that will be featured on these pages and cross-posted at Balkinization. scalesanddata.jpg

In convening the conference, we aimed to bring a political economy lens to a domain of extraordinary importance to our lives today.  Robots, gig-economy platforms, surveillance capitalism, and global networks all have helped shape rising inequality and the increasing precarity of work.  Bots and social media generate new challenges for democratic societies purportedly based on fair elections and a reasoned public sphere.  New surveillance technologies are being embraced by the criminal justice system, the military, and intelligence communities, with little attention to the racialized implications of these new extensions of the carceral state.

In analyzing problems such as these, we began from a shared understanding that technology doesn’t operate outside of a social or legal context.  Technology has a political economy, deeply shaped by law.  Politics orders technology through many different decisions made in code and in law.  These include decisions about the scope and ownership of intellectual property, about the permissible degree of concentration in industries, and about who will be allowed to access the outputs and inputs of technology. Law, together with social norms, shapes the diffusion and adoption of technology—for example, through labor and employment regulations, tax and transfer policies, and securities laws. How does law interact with technology to increase control by some and decrease the freedom of others? How does it in so doing exacerbate inequality?  And how might law make social practices mediated by technology more democratic and egalitarian? Over the course of this series, we will investigate how politics and law interact with technology to influence political and economic organization, mobilization and political communication, and patterns of inequality and economic insecurity.

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Why Civil Disobedience, and Why Now?

Amy Kapczynski – 

On December 5th, I joined hundreds of people from 32 states in Washington D.C to protest the Republican tax bill.  We packed the hallways outside of the offices of seven key members of Congress, and mic-checked one another so that people’s stories about the bill’s devastating consequences could be heard.   A group of us – around 130 in total – refused to leave when the Capitol police arrived, and were arrested.

It was in many ways not an unusual act – the next day, more than 200 people were arrested in D.C. demanding a Clean Dream Act.  I’m heading back to D.C. today for another protest, joining hundreds more in a last ditch effort to head off the tax bill.*

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Many people have thanked me for what I did two weeks ago.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a law professor.  Or perhaps it’s because so many of us are wondering what more we can – or must – do to save our democracy and bring about a more equal society.

Confrontational protest and civil disobedience are an indispensable part of the answer. Here are five thoughts on why I decided to participate in the protest, and what it means to me, and what I hope it might mean to some of you.   Continue reading

Your Money or Your Life?

Amy Kapczynski – 

High drug prices are a major problem in the United States. In the Washington Post today, Aaron Kesselheim and I have an op-ed about what President Trump could do – immediately – to lower drug prices, if he had any intention of following through on all of those campaign promises and tweets. 649816939_1280x720(We also explain why his nomination of Alex Azar to head HHS is a clear sign that he will do none of this.)

Here I wanted to say more about the stakes of the drug pricing problem, and about one option we describe – a little known patent “eminent domain” power that could be a powerful tool to lower drug prices.

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Why “Intellectual Property” Law?

Amy Kapczynski – 

When I entered law school in 1999, I was primarily interested in two things: HIV/AIDS, and critical approaches to human rights.  I was also young and queer, and Bowers v. Hardwick was the law of the land.  Sodomy was illegal in many states, and so, it seemed, was I.  So, I was also deeply interested in the law of sexuality.

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Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) poster

I ended up teaching and writing about intellectual property (IP) law.  My 1L self would not have believed it. (I even have the picture to prove it).

As a prelude to a series of future posts about my work in this field, I wanted to describe how I came to IP law – or rather, how it came to me.  If you aren’t sure what IP means or why it is important to social justice today, this post is for you.  The same is true if you are wondering how someone interested in law and political economy develops a research agenda, and why someone might choose patent law as a key part of it. Continue reading

Law and Political Economy: Toward a Manifesto

David Singh Grewal, Amy Kapczynski and Jedediah Purdy –

This is a time of crises.  Inequality is accelerating, with gains concentrated at the top of the income and wealth distributions.  This trend – interacting with deep racialized and gendered injustice – has had profound implications for our politics, and for the sense of agency, opportunity, and security of all but the narrowest sliver of the global elite. Technology has intensified the sense that we are both interconnected and divided, controlled and out of control.  New ecological disasters unfold each day.  The future of our planet is at stake: we are all at risk, yet unequally so. The rise of right-wing movements and autocrats around the world is threatening democratic institutions and political commitments to equality and openness.  But new movements on the left are also emerging.  They are challenging economic inequality, eroded democracy, the carceral state, and racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination with a force that was unthinkable just a few years ago.

Law is central to how these crises were created, and will be central to any reckoning with them.  Law conditions race and wealth, social reproduction and environmental destruction.  Law also conditions the political order through which we must respond.

How should legal scholars and lawyers respond to this moment?  We propose a new departure – a new orientation to legal scholarship that helps illuminate how law and legal scholarship facilitated these shifts, and formulates insights and proposals to help combat them.  A new approach of this sort is, we believe, in fact emerging: a coalescing movement of “law and political economy.” Continue reading