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Debate: Corporate personhood

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Should corporations be treated as legal persons with equivalent rights?

Background and context

The corporate personhood debate refers to the controversy (primarily in the United States) over the question of what subset of rights afforded under the law to natural persons should also be afforded to corporations as legal persons.
In the United States, a recent ruling by the Supreme Court in the case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission found that corporations have a right to free speech and to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaign ads. This ruling was based on a general interpretation by the 5-4 conservative majority in the case that corporations should have essentially all of the legal protections afforded to individuals (corporate personhood). Proponents of corporate personhood generally believe that corporations, as representatives of their shareholders, were intended by the founders and framers to enjoy many, if not all, of the same rights as natural persons, such as the right to free speech, self-incrimination, right to privacy, and the right to lobby the government. Opponents argue that corporate personhood ignores a distinction between natural "God-created" persons (with God-given rights) and legally-constituted corporations (with state-given rights). They also generally argue that the effects of giving corporations rights such as free speech and the right to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections will allow corporations to dominate elections, intimidate candidates, and generally corrupt democracy. These and other arguments are presented below.

See Wikipedia: Corporate personhood for more background.

Contents

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Rights: Do corps generally qualify for personhood/rights?

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Yes

  • Corporate rights protect owners from liability. Corporations have a 'legal personality' for the purposes of conducting business while shielding individual stockholders from personal liability (i.e., protecting personal assets which were not invested in the corporation). Without such protection, corporations would face significantly more challenging barriers to market entry and survival, which effectively narrows the scope of competition in the marketplace. Less competition in the marketplace comes at the cost of the consumer who will have to select from a narrower variety of choices.
  • Corporate personhood enables multinational corporations, global stability. A major benefit under the philosophy of corporate personhood is that it shields owners from legal responsibility. By having fewer restraints, corporations are able to grow and become multinational. The international commerce that multinationals participate in create economic ties between nation states. Economic ties bind the hands of nation states and pressure them to cooperate, contributing to peaceful and prosperous international relations.
  • Personhood is legal distinction applicable to humans and corps. Personhood is simply a legal distinction. It can be given to humans and to corporations, to define both as legal entities deserving of certain rights, protections, responsibilities, and liabilities as a consequence of wrong-doing. While many react to the idea of "corporate personhood" as ridiculous, it's important to think of it as simply a legal distinction which does not mean to conflate a human-being with a corporation.
  • Dictionaries include corporations in definitions of persons The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a person as: "one (as a human being, a partnership, or a corporation) that is recognized by law as the subject of rights and duties."[1] To contend that "personhood" cannot or has never been linguistically applied to corporations is, therefore, clearly false. While the debate can continue on other grounds, it is plain that the idea of corporate personhood has been long-standing, even if not widely accepted.
  • Employees transfer many of their rights to corps "Chapter 3 - Should Corporations Have Rights?": "[The] reason why corporate autonomy should be protected by rights is that individuals who exercise corporate autonomy by acting as a corporation forfeit some of their own autonomy in doing so. For instance, shareholders give up the right to control their own property, and employees their own labour. On a deeper, psychological level, members of a corporation are forced to accept organisational roles and objectives that may conflict with their authentic selves,4 and must adopt role distance to shield their personal integrity. The fact that corporate power compromises individual autonomy has long been recognised, and has been received with varying degrees of pessimism.6 My own view is more positive. Members of a corporation who forego their individual autonomy in order to join it do so because they with to become part of a larger autonomous entity. In a sense, members of a corporation oluntarily "transfer" a portion of their own autonomy to the corporation in order that they may share in its autonomy instead. Looked at in this way, to refuse to protect the autonomy of a corporation would be to depreciate the value of the autonomy given up by its members."


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No

  • Corporations are legal creations; no individual rights John Marshall, one of the most famous and respected Chief Justices in US history, wrote in 1819 that corporations are “an artificial being, invisible, intangible. Being the mere creature of law, it possesses only those properties which the charter of its creation confers upon it, either expressly, or as incidental to its very existence.”
  • Corps have no moral consciences like persons. A critical element of having rights within the social compact is that an individual has a moral conscience. This is because only entities with moral consciences can be trusted to fully uphold the social compact. Corporations do not have this moral conscience. This is partly because they simply are not human beings, but organizations that are specifically designed to make money and maximize profits. And, because they do not have moral consciences like humans, they should not be given the rights of ordinary persons.
  • Corporations are not natural persons, so have fewer rights David Newquist. "The grammar of libel." Kelo. January 30, 2010: "To contend that a corporation, which is a political contrivance of humans with an agenda, is in any way a person is to fly in the face of an essential linguistic and semantic distinction that is deeply rooted in the language. [...] The English lexicon has from its inception defined a person as a human, an individual of specified character, the personality of a human self. To contend that a corporation, which is a political contrivance of humans with an agenda, is in any way a person is to fly in the face of an essential linguistic and semantic distinction that is deeply rooted in the language."
  • Corps have some rights, but not all given to persons. That corporations are not persons, according to a September 21, 2009 New York Times editorial, "does not mean that corporations should have no rights. It is in society’s interest that they are allowed to speak about their products and policies and that they are able to go to court when another company steals their patents. It makes sense that they can be sued, as a person would be, when they pollute or violate labor laws. [...] The law also gives corporations special legal status: limited liability, special rules for the accumulation of assets and the ability to live forever. These rules put corporations in a privileged position in producing profits and aggregating wealth. Their influence would be overwhelming with the full array of rights that people have."[2]
  • How do corps. exercise right to life, marriage, etc? There are obviously certain rights that persons have that corporations do not have. The right to life is one. The right to marry is another, bear children, and to pursue happiness are others. This just highlights the distinction between natural human rights and the lesser rights that corporations may receive.
  • The idea of corporations being "people" is absurd Molly Morgan, a member of the leadership team for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom's: "It’s not a thing, it’s just an abstraction and that’s part of the reason that the strategy of corporate personhood was a brilliant one - they created this artificial thing that could be endowed with any kind of powers and any kind of characteristics. Corporations can live forever and live in many nations at once and cut off parts of themselves and this is the entity they have given legal rights and personhood to."[3]
  • General statements against corporate personhood Justice Stevens in his dissent with Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor in the January 2010 Citizens United case: "The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court's disposition of this case."[4]


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Individual rights: Is corp personhood consistent with individual rights?

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Pro

  • Citizens shouldn't be deprived of rights when joining corps. Supporters argue that corporations should have the protection of the U.S. Constitution, pointing out that they are just organizations of people, and that these people shouldn't be deprived of their human rights when they join with others to act collectively.
  • Corporate interests rarely conflict with individuals interests "Should corporations have rights?": "Since a corporation is constituted by its members, they are unlikely to assert a right on behalf of the collectivity which is contrary to their individual interests.24 The second example may be disposed of on the additional ground that any right the corporation might assert to prevent a member from leaving would have to be weighed against the member's opposing individual right to freedom of dissociation."


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Con

  • Corporate rights wrongly give individuals double rights. People may join together to act collectively while they are simultaneously able to act individually, giving them a greater presence than just individuals, or double-representation. In other words, some argue that a corporation's interests are already covered by all individuals who hold an interest in a corporation, for example, shareholders, employees and customers.
  • Corporations are property; should have few rights Manual Garcia. "Corporate free speech." Counter Punch. January 22, 2010: "People have human rights and they have property rights, but property itself has no rights; it is by definition not-human (the 13th Amendment abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime; property is stuff and livestock). People can form private clubs of pooled property -- corporations -- because these are profitable ways of engaging in commerce. But, by bending law to debase the definition of a human being so as to bestow "personhood" on pooled property clubs, we dehumanize society. In brief: people have rights and property does not; and accumulated property does not shield the individual from responsibility for the consequences of their acts. [...] We take each of these principles to disqualify corporations from legal consideration as 'persons.'"


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Democracy: Is corporate personhood healthy for democracy?

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Pro


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Con

  • Too much greed and too much power of corporations is undesirable. Corporations are usually made purely to earn money. Since corporations are inventions purely for the purpose of making money, they therefore can´t have human rights. It is like if a fireman meddles in the sorting of library books, or if a policeman fixes the sewer system. The society is left in chaos, since the money-earning corporations vote for legislation that suits only them. Also, if these corporations (which are already powerful enough) enhance their power with the right to say, then the world will be overrun by greedy, fat, cash-filled corporations which will leave the common people, farmers, working class, and all the poor, honest, hard-working people exploited.
  • Corporations have no "right" to a voice in democracy Dale Pendell. "The Magic of Corporate Personhood." Huffington Post. January 29, 2010: "But there is nothing inevitable about the corporation in its present form. It is not a necessary part of capitalism, nor of civilization, nor of technological progress. It can be dissolved by legal writ, the same way it was created. The corporation is not equivalent to "free enterprise," in fact is inimical to such. There is no divine reason that stock companies or other collective endeavors should have the right to meddle in politics, to buy other companies, or, indeed, to engage in any other business than that for which they were specifically created, and for which we, the citizens, have relieved the investors of liability and assumed it ourselves. [...] I, for one, would be happier if the entity to which I contract my labor were chartered to focus on production and service, for the common good, and that politics be left to citizens. That's called democracy, and is still an idea worth trying."
  • Corporate personhood fosters monopolies Al Gore argues that, because a 1886 ruling offering corporations many rights, "the 'monopolies in commerce' that Jefferson had wanted to prohibit in the Bill of Rights were full-blown monsters, crushing competition from smaller businesses, bleeding farmers with extortionate shipping costs, and buying politicians at every level of government."[5]


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Precedent: Does corporate personhood undermine court precedent?

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Pro


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Con

  • Corporations traditionally have limited rights "The rights of corporations." New York Times Editorial. September 21, 2009: "The courts have long treated corporations as persons in limited ways for some legal purposes. They may own property and have limited rights to free speech. They can sue and be sued. They have the right to enter into contracts and advertise their products. But corporations cannot and should not be allowed to vote, run for office or bear arms. Since 1907, Congress has banned them from contributing to federal political campaigns — a ban the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld."


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Constitutionality: Is corp personhood consistent with US constitution?

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Pro

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Con

  • Corporations have hijacked the 14th Amendment Doug Hammerstrom. "The highjacking of the 14th amendment.": "Corporations, on the other hand, hijacked the Fourteenth Amendment and have used it to consolidate their power in the U.S. and the world. Corporations have gained many of the inalienable rights of humans guaranteed by the Bill of Rights with their status as “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment. Through their right of free speech they have captured our and regulatory agencies. They have used the key to the courts that the Fourteenth Amendment provides them to invalidate legislation that might have slipped through their control of the legislative process." This argument has led many to argue and propose a constitutional amendment clarifying that corporations are not persons under the 14th amendment.
  • Constitutional rights should protect people over corporations Nancy Price, Alliance for Democracy Co-Chair: "The Constitution was written to protect real people, not to give corporations the power to challenge our fundamental rights and enacted laws. [...] The Supreme Court's expansion of corporate free speech rights under the First Amendment further entrenches corporate power in the law of the land. It is a stunning setback for American democracy and a crime against the rights of ordinary people."[6]


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Profit-interest: Can corporate personhood work with profit-interest?

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Yes


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No

  • Corps focus on profits, not eligible for rights Tom Stites. "How corporations became persons." UU World: "Democracy expresses the collective consciences of citizens. However noble or flawed its message, this is how our nation's moral voice is heard. [...] Corporations express the collective investment goals of shareholders. The legal stricture known as fiduciary responsibility confines all but closely held corporations to this singular goal. By shutting off other values to focus solely on pursuit of profit in inherently amoral economic competition, corporations are by their nature amoral as well. Despite image-enhancing claims of corporate citizenship, they have no consciences to express, only earnings per share. They differ from people not only in form and size but, most importantly, in their fundamental character: People including corporate executives, employees, and shareholders—have inherent worth and dignity; corporations in and of themselves do not."



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Pro/con resources

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Yes


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No


See also

External links and resources


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