My second screed on corporate ‘personhood’
September 21, 2007
This is part two of my ongoing exploration into efforts to strip the status of “personhood” from corporations in the United States.The campaign, as far as I’ve discovered through Internet-based research, is largely the work of a nonprofit organization called reclaimdemocracy.org, created in 1999, and growing slowly ever since.The fight has grown out of the effort of a disparate union of scattered communities, from such widely dispersed locales as Humboldt County, Calif., the state of Montana and Clarion County, Penn. The issues ranged from corporate efforts to dump municipal sludge on the farms of Pennsylvania, with disastrous results for the health of local residents, to Wal-Mart’s battle to ignore and sidestep local zoning and taxation laws.Since the late 1800s, corporate lawyers have worked to solidify their employers’ status as “persons” with rights under the U.S. Constitution, rights that cover the spectrum from First Amendment freedom of speech to Fourth Amendment guarantees against improper search and seizure.Perhaps predictably, since the U.S. has, since its inception, been run by a wealthy elite, the corporations have enjoyed the support of legislatures and judges, including the judges of state and federal courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, in their bids to conduct end-runs around any attempts to regulate or suppress their activities.There is so much information out there about the growing movement to cancel corporate “personhood,” it’s hard to know where to begin and what to mention.So I think I’d like to start with my most basic question: Why should we think corporations are “persons” at all?The corporate argument is based in a feeling that corporations must be protected against unreasonable limitations on their activities. But the plain fact is that corporations were first conceived more than two centuries ago as tools to be wielded by persons interested in making money. As such, corporations were created and granted charters (defined in one reference as “the right to exist”) that were of a certain duration in time and that permitted only a certain level of activity. The idea was that corporations were designed as vehicles for profit, and nothing else, and that they should last a certain length of time and then either be eliminated or continued, depending on the wants and needs of stockholders.But somewhere along the line the corporate boards began to think outside that box, and embarked on a mission to make corporations into the legal equivalent of citizens. The initial cases I’ve read about involved corporate attempts to avoid paying certain state and local taxes. But the effort evolved into a concerted attempt to create a new status for this invention, including the right to free speech in a political sense, a right that allows corporations to disproportionately influence elections at all levels of American political life.But wait. Back when corporations were just getting started, they were seen as what they truly are, which is an artificial construct for framing the profit-making enterprises of their human creators.So far, so good. The problems arose when corporations, or their boards of directors, decided they didn’t have enough influence on the world around them, probably thinking only in terms of making and keeping ever-greater profits.But how can a corporation be seen as a person, in a legal sense? They are created by people, for purposes established by those same people, and at the outset were correctly seen as having great potential for corruption and illegal acts. Hence the initial limitations on their duration and their scope of activity. And as we have seen throughout the last century and a half, that sense of distrust and caution on the part of early lawmakers was well founded. Corporate malfeasance is a well-documented fact of life, as is the ability of corporations to skirt the law and in some cases have laws overturned, regardless of those laws’ beneficial intentions and protections for actual human beings.So how can something we humans created be declared our equal in the eyes of the law? Is this some kind of “God complex” that humans seem to fall victim to all too often, a belief that we can create life out of nothing? Is our true God the almighty dollar, and our every effort to be turned solely toward the pursuit of that dollar, rather than social justice and individual happiness and satisfaction?These are not questions that can be easily or quickly answered, but they must be asked, and answered, if we are ever to regain control of this country and begin to turn it toward a humanistic path.More, later.John Colson can be reached at email@example.com.