Are Corporations ‘People’?

A most interesting question was posed today to panelists on the “Inside Washington” PBS roundtable. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer, that brilliant conservative whom I admire but with whom I disagree so much, didn’t bite. Columnist and editor Colby King of the Washington Post did.

First of all, this question is loaded. Krauthammer probably saw that. By ‘people’ do we mean, are corporations best viewed as aggregates of “just-plain folks”, like you and me? Or should corporations count under some kind of “one man one vote” rule, getting entitlement to contribute to political campaigns, and to lobby for tax breaks and special treatment?

Second of all, are we talking about how we define corporations, or are we really talking about a extra-constitutional rationale for expanding their enormous power?

Colby King innocently jumped on the question right away. Corporations, he offered in so many words, are comprised of investors, maybe just like you and me, or like the managers of our decimated 401K accounts. So in that sense yes, King said he could see corporations as ‘people’. The question went nowhere. Panelists quickly jumped to the next topic.

Politically, there is one aspect of corporations that’s much like any other interest group. They are and should be entitled to lobby Washington for fair representation of their interests in the scheme of things. But this kind of advocacy should be vetted for impartial relevance in ways we do not tolerate for private citizens. Washington observers have witnessed a sea change in corporate legal status in recent years. Under the Bush Administration, expanded ‘rights’ were extended to corporations, so that, perhaps, corporations might be allowed to donate anonymously to political campaigns and secret slush funds, or the Koch Brothers might be able to buy an election proposition initiative in California.

The unspoken core principle here was that corporations had heretofore been denied basic individual rights, so statutes and enforcement protocols needed to be relaxed to eliminate discrimination against ‘just plain people’ interest groups that just so happen to be incorporated under the laws of a state.

After all, if you own a corporation, presumably you do go to the polls to vote your personal position on the issues, don’t you? Don’t you think there should be some way your corporation can act as an extension your views, since you own a piece of it or actually control it?

So sorry, but you don’t get your vote counted twice just because you’re incorporated in, say, the State of Delaware. If a private citizen’s vote counts as one, should the “vote” of a Bank of America or Koch Industries count as ten million?

A corporation is not an individual. It does not have individual rights. It doesn’t get to vote. The Articles of Constitution only enumerate individual freedoms for individuals. So corporations are not people, and there is a dangerously destabilizing aspect to this trendy popular doublethink. Look at the 2008 consequences of the SEC and Treasury being asleep at the wheel on “good guys” like Bernie Madoff, Bank of America, AIG and Lehman Brothers. But if they were influenced by the Wall Street “old boys network” (from whom they draw so many into their ranks), nobody can prove it: not above suspicion, not accountable, never free of the taint of conflict of interest.

Individual Americans have many diverging views about religious takes on prayer in schools, abortion, gay rights, divorce or evolution, and we are all free to express our opinions, and to vote on them to the extent not pre-empted by statutory and constitutional limitations. But Congress is not free to count the “votes” of our congregations, synagogues and mosques. Yet the century-old corporate problem remains: Congress remains beholden to very large corporations.

Judicial common sense is of course needed here. Perhaps that’s asking a lot of our current crop of representatives. Your pastor, priest or rabbi should certainly be welcomed as an “expert witness” on a topic of debate, perhaps home schooling, subject of course to their personal experience in the area — but not as a spokesperson for, say, The Vatican. Similarly, shouldn’t a respected and honest businessperson such as Warren Buffett be allowed to address Congress on the economy or a hearing on energy? Certainly — but he should not be invited to make a large contribution to the chairperson of the committee hearing a bill under which Berkshire Hathaway would be a principle or sole beneficiary.

There are honest businesspeople, remember, and Buffett would certainly be one of them. Constraints need to be reimposed upon abuse of power in both private enterprise and Congress.

We need political separation of corporation and state just as we need separation of church and state, and for the very same reasons.

Further Reading

1. The Billionaire Koch Brothers’ War Against Obama : Jane Mayer, The New Yorker
“The Kochs have long depended on the public’s not knowing all the details about them. They have been content to operate what David Koch has called ‘the largest company that you’ve never heard of.’ But with the growing prominence of the Tea Party, and with increased awareness of the Kochs’ ties to the movement, the brothers may find it harder to deflect scrutiny.

2. The Koch brothers: all the influence money can buy : Paul Harris, Guardian
“Not just liberals but conservatives should be deeply worried by a revelatory investigation of the libertarian billionaires’ lobbying”

3. Corporate personhood : Wikipedia
“Others argue that corporations should have the protection of the U.S. Constitution, pointing out that they are organizations of people, and that these people shouldn’t be deprived of their human rights when they join with others to act collectively.”

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