Corporations aren’t people. They’re gods. Imbued with superhuman powers, capable of being many places at once, and blessed with immortality.
Just kidding, they’re not gods. But, they are people. Really big, powerful, awesome people.
If you’ve been following the Occupy Wall Street protests, you’ll have noticed plenty of people talking about the horrors of corporate personhood. It’s a woefully misguided complaint, and it tends to come from people not knowing two things. First, corporate personhood existed well before Citizens United, and second, there’s a lot more to it that campaign finance.
People see the word ‘person,’ see it being applied to a corporation, and think to themselves, “That ain’t right.” It’s a perfectly reasonable response. An abstract association is not a living, breathing human. The fact that our law refers to corporations as people seems really screwy., until you look at just what ‘person’ means in the legal sense. In the legal realm, ‘person’ is merely shorthand for any entity with rights.
And why does the law recognize corporations as entities with rights? Because the whole damn economy would revert to a pre-industrial feudal society without it. Among the most important rights that a corporation has is the right to own and protect its property.
Without corporate ownership of property, there would be no limited liability structures. Investors could not separate their personal assets from the assets invested in to a company. Allowing this division encourages investment, and is necessary for the existence of a middle class and social mobility. The ultra-wealthy don’t really need limited liability, they could take a serious hit if they had to, though they would use a lot less leverage with the house on the line. But, the middle class entrepreneur, if he had to put his home, his car, and all his savings on the line when he set out on his own? He’d never leave his corporate desk job, too much risk.
Corporate ownership of property and limited liability is what makes investment possible. And, not just investment by Wall Street fat cats. Anyone with any sort of retirement savings is investing in the stock market. Take away corporate personhood, and you won’t have any more pensions or 401ks.
What about all the other rights a corporation has? And specifically, what about the freedom of speech?
Understanding why a corporation should have these other rights simply requires taking a look at just what a corporation is. A corporation is a way for people to come together and operate a business in an efficient manner. It’s an association of people, and the rights that a corporation may exercise are no greater than the rights possessed by the members of the association.
If you believe in the freedom of speech, and you believe in the freedom of association, it’s really not that scary of a concept to believe that you should be able to use your association to speak. If two people can hold up signs at a political rally, and those two people are allowed to stand near each other, then it’s probably okay that they get a banner and each hold one end.
If it’s okay for two people to hold up a banner, then it seems okay for ten people to get together, elect a leader, and let that leader go on television and ask, “Where’s the beef?” And, if it’s okay for them to have their leader say, “Where’s the beef?” surely it’s also okay for them to pool their resources, and have their leader find a little old lady to say “Where’s the beef?” for them, and to use their money to buy advertising time, print ads, or t-shirts.
Every action that a corporation takes is ultimately an action undertaken by a living breathing human. Goliath Corp axed 5,000 US jobs and sent them to China? Some real life person made that decision. Goliath bundled toxic assets together and misrepresented their value? A whole bunch of people got together and made that decision. Goliath Corp turned a huge profit, where did the money go? To people, either through bonuses, dividends, or an increased stock price, and those executives and shareholders are all people. Goliath hired a lobbyist to go to Congress and apply some pressure? A human being cut the check to another human being. Yes, even more shocking than the idea that corporations are people is that lobbyists are people, exercising their freedoms of speech and petition.
What has people so miffed isn’t that corporations can talk, but that they’re talking politics, and that the politicians are listening. But, this is America. We recognize that speech comes in many forms, sign language, symbolic speech, people lining up on the beach to spell out a political message, and even the freedom to not speak at all. When we don’t like what people are saying, or how they are saying it, we don’t use the law to silence them, we simply raise our own voices.
The problem isn’t that corporations are too loud, it’s that the rest of us are too quiet. That’s the part the Occupy movement has gotten right. Want politicians to listen to you instead of someone else? Make more noise. The problem isn’t that the law treats corporations like people, it’s that the people have stopped acting like citizens.