Posts Tagged ‘corporate personhood’

Corporate Personhood in a Free Society

October 27, 2011

Shannonkringens photostream

“Corporate,” for some, is a four-letter word – with “corporate personhood” a double obscenity. This longtime pet cause of the Left is a particular target of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests.

“Corporate personhood” originated in the Supreme Court’s 1886 decision in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. What the Court actually said was that the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws – and that no “person” could be deprived of property without due process of law – applies to corporations. Seems to me entirely reasonable that in a free society under rule of law, these safeguards against arbitrary government power should apply not only to individual people, but to any private organization or institution.

When Mitt Romney recently declared, “corporations are people,” I suspect he meant merely that they’re made up of people. They’re not from Mars. They’re human organizations, not only extensions of the people who own them and run them, but also the people working for them, which indeed is most of the people in the country.

But none of this implies (as critics seem to imagine) that corporations can run roughshod over the rights of real persons. Just as individuals are subject to laws governing their behavior, to protect the rights of others, so are corporations. Not even the most extreme advocate of laissez faire capitalism wants corporations free from laws barring abusive conduct.


Being human organizations, corporations are indeed subject to all the character flaws that individual humans exhibit; and moreover, when you aggregate humans into large bureaucratized institutions, you get a whole new range of pathologies. That does threaten harm, which laws must forestall. This applies even more to another class of bureaucratized human organization: government. Which, remember, has far more power than corporations (a corporation can’t jail you), and hence protecting against government’s abuses is rather more of a concern than protecting us from corporations. And, yes, even corporations have legitimate rights against government abuse.

This brings us directly to a more recent Supreme Court case, Citizens United, which also has the Left hysterical, that corporations are allowed to fund political ads. Almost forgotten is what the case was actually about. Somebody made a political film criticizing Hillary Clinton. The Federal Election Gestapo ruled they couldn’t distribute it because the film had some corporate funding. The Supreme Court said, no, this is still a free country, and the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees bar such government regulation of political advocacy. (Please see my blog post preceding the decision.)

So Citizens United did not open a door that had always been closed. Instead, it overturned a regulatory regime that had been in effect only briefly, and restored the political freedom that had prevailed for most of the prior two centuries. (Note, the whole cat’s cradle of federal election regulation is really geared to suppressing political activity by the “outs” and protecting the “ins,” who never have trouble raising money and getting their message heard.)


But is corruption of the political process, by corporations effectively bribing politicians through campaign contributions, a problem? Yes – a huge one. In fact, as anti-capitalists love to point out, our free market system is greatly compromised by the “crony capitalism” of privileges enjoyed at the behest of (and corruptly bought from) government. In a truly free market, corporations check each other’s power. Government intervention undermines that.

But the remedy for all this should not lie in restrictions upon political advocacy. A far preferable solution would be a system of vouchers or tax credits to subsidize and promote greatly increased citizen political contributions, to counter the impact of corporate money. (This would be a form of public campaign finance vastly superior to existing schemes. For more about it, click here.)

And this we can do without gutting the First Amendment. In a free country, even corporations should have just as much right as any other groups of people to express their viewpoints and advocate for their interests in open public debate. Far more problematic is the idea that government can tell anybody when or how they’re allowed to participate in that debate. That’s the road to (today’s) Damascus.