Yesterday it became news that the government of Georgia is considering rescinding a special tax break for Delta, specifically because Delta is crusading against the NRA. Joe Cunningham wrote about it yesterday in this post, and the Washington Post reports it this way today:
Days after Delta Air Lines announced it would stop offering discounted fares to National Rifle Association members, a top Georgia Republican retaliated, vowing to kill legislation that would hand the airline a lucrative tax break.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R), who leads the Georgia State Senate, demanded on Monday that Atlanta-based Delta, one of the state’s largest employers, make a choice: Stop punishing the NRA, or watch Republican lawmakers strike down a $50 million sales tax exemption on jet fuel, of which Delta would be the primary beneficiary.
Here’s Cagle on Twitter, blatantly tying the tax break to Delta’s stance on the NRA:
I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with @NRA. Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.
— Casey Cagle (@CaseyCagle) February 26, 2018
Some folks are applauding this, because Georgia is sticking it to Delta and backing the NRA. I don’t share this opinion.
My argument is not that Delta must be given the tax break. My argument is that we should not have such tax breaks at all, in part because government will use them to enforce restrictions on corporations’ speech — as this episode illustrates.
If the words “kill any tax legislation that benefits” in the above tweet were replaced with the word “boycott” I could approve this sentiment. I wouldn’t necessarily engage in a boycott myself — I tend to fly the airline where I can get the best deal, and the airlines’ politics do not matter to that equation — but I have nothing at all negative to say about anyone who wants to say: “I will boycott Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with the NRA.” That is everyone’s right as a citizen: to choose who they deal with in the marketplace.
Similarly, I could sign onto the Lt. Governor’s tweet if he had said: “I will kill any tax legislation that benefits Delta because crony capitalism is wrong.” In his post, Joe Cunningham asked: “why do we continue to give major special tax breaks to big companies?” and I think it’s a fair question. I would ask the same question about small companies, or any companies. Giving special treatment to one company is crony capitalism. Conservatives should oppose that, everywhere and always.
But when government is doling out favors based on the political views of a company, that’s where I get off the train. I agree with Charlie C.W. Cooke when he says:
This is a bad idea. Delta and the NRA are both private organizations; the state should not be taking sides on the basis of elected officials’ opinions about their private arrangements. This is viewpoint discrimination. https://t.co/iyjhcWQ4SD
— Charles C. W. Cooke (@charlescwcooke) February 26, 2018
I’ll leave it to First Amendment experts as to whether this is an actual First Amendment violation. It certainly looks like viewpoint discrimination to me, but there could be technical arguments that it isn’t, as a legal matter. Companies are not entitled to tax breaks — especially targeted ones not generally available — and governments are able to accomplish many goals with tax policy that they could not otherwise accomplish. (That’s not necessarily a good thing, by the way; it’s just a description of the state of the law.)
But even if the Georgia legislature can do this legally, citizens should find it repulsive to this country’s principles when the government picks winners and losers based on private speech about a matter of public importance.
Imagine a scenario in which a blue state tells Hobby Lobby, for example, that their access to a tax break is dependent on whether the company publicly supports Planned Parenthood. Give Planned Parenthood employees and donors a special deal on your arts and crafts, and we’ll give you that tax break. Refuse to give them a deal, and no tax break for you! On what principled basis could you object to that, if you’re applauding Georgia’s threats to Delta here? Your only argument would be: Planned Parenthood bad, NRA good. And that’s not a principled argument. Any argument you could make that it’s wrong to use government for such purposes would lose all force, as people could easily point to your approval of Georgia’s actions here.
And this illustrates the corrosive nature of these tax breaks to begin with. If government has a power like that, it’s a given that government will abuse it.
Any time government is allowed any special authority to exercise control over particular corporations, government will try to use that authority to influence the corporation’s speech. If government has the authority to grant or withhold an FCC license, for example, government officials will abuse that authority and try to prevent speech they dislike. We have seen it happen time and time again. The same is true here. When government is in the business of giving tax breaks to particular companies, there should be no surprise when government uses that power to enforce its preferred political orthodoxy.
It’s fine and even laudable for citizens to engage in viewpoint discrimination against Delta. Boycott to your heart’s content. But viewpoint discrimination by government is different.
We should not be surprised that government does this. But neither should we be applauding it.
UPDATE: Technically the tax break would not be “rescinded” — an expired tax break would not be renewed.