Column on Are Corporations Persons?

Are Corporations Persons?

Tibor R. Machan

        Actually, no one thinks corporations are persons but some do believe they are
groups of persons.  No one thinks
orchestras, or football teams or universities are persons but many do think
they are variously configured people.  If this is
so, then they, as groups of persons, have rights, including the right to
private property and freedom of speech.

        When people come together for some
common purpose, they do not lose their basic human rights.  So all the hollering about how the recent
Supreme Court ruling about whether corporations have the right to engage in
political advocacy, based on the allegation that corporations aren’t persons, is
off base. 

        Even those who oppose the ruling implicitly acknowledge the
above.  Thus Justice Stevens, the major dissenter on
the Court, wrote, that “[T]he distinctive potential of corporations to
corrupt
the electoral process [has] long been recognized.”  But only persons
can corrupt something!  Theodore Roosevelt advocated prohibiting "all
contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any
political purpose."  And this, too, implies that corporations are made
up of people, people who have rights!  There is no other way
corporations can make contributions–buildings, trees, land, the sea,
none of these can make contributions, only people can. Ergo,
corporations are people!

  
     In any case, I have no idea what else corporations would be.  Yes,
they have some kind of legal identity but that is completely derivative
of their being made up of people.  Usually, it is a bunch of people who
get together and incorporate–now that monarchs no longer create such
associations–which is to say they form a specific type of
organization, usually involving pooling some resources and hiring
specialists to administer these resources either for profitable or
non-profitable purposes.  But whichever it is, it is persons who are
doing this and nothing else.  You may not like those types of persons
but in a democracy they have the right to obtain and wield political
power. 

        Now it is true that when people
unite with one another, they tend to gain in influence, even power, if
power is at issue.  Sadly, given how much politics is not a matter of
upholding principles, as the American Founders envisioned it, but of
confiscating funds and then distributing them–that whole
redistribution thing that candidate Obama had out with Joe "the
Plumber"–having united powers can go a long way to gaining political
clout.  But this has nothing to do with corporations as such, which are
perfectly benign outfits unless they commit crimes, just as this is so
with individual citizens.

        So then what is up
with all the corporate bashing?  Mostly that if you aren’t a part of
the corporation but a lot of others are, it is they and not you who
will wield more political power.  And if one believes in democratic
politics, why complain about this?  If a huge company, owned by
thousands of stockholders and other investors, exerts power, such is
democracy.  You cannot cherry pick which group of citizens should get
democratic power and which should be ignored. 

         The remedy for out of control corporate political influence and
power is to limit democracy to very few tasks in the country, such as
the selection of public officials.  They will then represent those who
elected them but not by doing them special favors but by helping in
extending the principles of the country to new and uncharted areas of
the law.

        I am no corporate attorney, nor a
constitutional scholar but our legal system must make sense to all
citizens, not just to experts.  And as a plain, ordinary citizen it
seems to me that all the derision extended toward corporations amounts
to rank prejudice, bias, as a generalized dislike of movie actors or
farmers would be.  This is nothing to be proud of, that’s for sure,
even if it is widely accepted and practiced.  So was racial prejudice
once. Not that those who have shares or manage corporations are all
fine people, not by a long shot, but neither are all doctors, teachers,
engineers or bureaucrats upstanding citizens.  At any given time the
bulk of the members of a professional could be engaged in malpractice
or be decent in how they conduct themselves. 

        But there is no reason to suspect those who own or run
corporations of any greater predilection toward malpractice than anyone
else.  Sometimes, of course, they operate in a system that encourages
corruption, which the welfare state clearly does, what with all the
selling and buying of political favors it involves.  And big firms will
probably be able to get more from politicians than little ones.  That,
however, is the problem of the system, not of any given profession.

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2 Responses to Column on Are Corporations Persons?

  1. james says:

    Mr. Machan, I read your article in the Register on Feb. 3rd re: Coerced Health Care. A major flaw in your reasoning is the fact that buying health insurance when you are young and healthy is not a guarantee that they will cover you when you are ill…or as you would say, when you can profit from the insurance company. Here is how it works—you pay for 25 years. You get cancer. Your rates go up 115% one year. Then the next year they cut your "group." Then you can go apply to where? So maybe from the University worldview all is fine with healthcare. But for people who are not attached to the government or a university—it needs some reform for working people on whom the insurance companies have profited and can then be eliminated just when you need it most. That is the real world.

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