Column on Are Corporations People?

Are Corporations People?


Tibor R. Machan

Much
fussing is in evidence from certain circles–some heavy hitters, like
Professor Ronald Dworkin–about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that
protects corporations against government intervention when they make
political contributions.  The common complaint appears to be that
corporations are not, after all, people.

When
I run across this I always run through a thought experiment or two.  I
think of a corporation and ask myself, what am I thinking of.  Do I
think of buildings? Trucks? Limos? Parking lots? The plants that adorn
the entry ways to the buildings where the corporation is housed?

None
of the above, I conclude.  It is people, that’s who.  They are the ones
I am thinking of, a bunch of human beings engaged in various
activities, mostly in offices, sometimes in mail or conference rooms.
 And I think what else is familiar to me that fits this analysis?  Well,
universities, colleges, orchestras, choirs, sororities, fraternities,
families, and the like–they are all made up of people and without the
people they wouldn’t be what they are. Yet they can all act in unison,
as well, as “one body,” so to speak, provided those who belong to them
see eye to eye.

So
then why all the fuss about the court’s ruling that acknowledges that
business and other corporations are indeed people?  Well, probably
because many of the people who make up corporations disagree with the
politics of those who deny them their humanity, the folks who keep
insisting that corporations are something impersonal and heartless.  One
way to demean such folks is to write them off as something other than
human beings–big faceless entities of some kind, yet with consciousness
and the capacity to make good and bad choices and also capable of being
sued in a court of law.

The
bottom line seems clearly to be that those who make up a business
corporation are people engaged in profit making endeavors, something
that many folks around the country and the globe deem to be unseemly. In
the Soviet Union these people were considered profiteers and
accordingly taken to be criminals, given that the USSR was committed to
the Marxist communist ideal that wealth may not be pursued by
individuals but must be shared among all.  Not that most Soviet citizens
bought into this but the official ideology adhered to the idea.

What
business corporations are, by my common sense understanding, is
organizations established by a bunch of human beings for the purpose of
conducting commerce and reaping economic benefits from this.  The
organization usually employs some managers and the like who are
responsible to guide it toward economic success.  If they fail, they are
usually let go but if they succeed, they often get very well
paid–after all, they helped a lot of people, shareholders and
stockholders, to reap profits.

So
what is the fuss all about?  Why is a symphony orchestra accepted as
comprised of human beings but not a business corporation?  Well, I think
maybe it is the widespread prejudice among intellectuals against wealth
care.  This is why public enterprises like PBS, NPR and most
educational institutions are deemed by them holier than all get out but
private enterprises are besmirched routinely.  As if those involved in
public undertakings were all morally superior, while those seeking
profit must all be cads.

But
as public choice theory has so well demonstrated, those standing up for
the public interest are by no means without the temptation to pursue
their own agendas instead of the public interest, something that hardly
anyone knows enough about to actually serve conscientiously.  

Let’s
stop this business bashing that is, especially now, so damaging to
society, what with everyone needing business to forge ahead and succeed
so that we can all make a decent living from the employment their profit
pursuits make possible.  It is utterly bizarre that this kind of an
attitude toward business corporations can be in place when those
corporations are so necessary for us all to recover economic well being.
 

So
the answer to the question about corporations being people or not is
that they definitely are although they may not be the sort of people the
critics admire or want to have around much of the time.

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