Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Corporations are not people

Let me start with, I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. This is my opinion about why corporations should not be considered a person.

What is a corporation? A corporation is an artificial legal entity created for the purpose of operating an ongoing business (for profit, or non-profit) or governmental unit (city, town, etc). They serve several practical business functions, and that is their only reason for existence. Corporations exist to allow a business to:
  • survive the death of any individual
  • be bought and sold via the issuance, sale, and purchase of stock
  • offer limited (to amount of the investment) liability for the stockholders
  • offer limited liability to employees, officers, and directors, except when they have violated the law or are found to have been negligent
As an artificial entity, they need to be endowed with certain rights by their creator. Who is their creator? Government, as an agent of The People governed. With the exception of the rights necessary to fulfill the purposes above, they should have no rights that a person doesn't have. Indeed, they should have fewer rights than a person.

Corporations should have very limited access to petition the government or lobby for/against laws and regulations. They are not people, the government doesn't represent them. The government is the creator of the corporation, not it's servant. Corporations must have no right to vote, and should not be allowed to contribute to political campaigns, PACs, or otherwise fund a political campaign in ANY fashion. Their right, if any, to lobby politicians should also be severely limited. As one commenter on this post put it:
If corp's can influence legislation then at least one will be unscrupulous enough to influence laws to give themselves an unfair advantage in their market therefore dominating it and becoming a duly ordained part of a growing oligarchy.
The individual owners, officers, directors, and even employees can personally contribute to and support politicians, but the corporation should not be able to do so, nor be allowed to direct them to do so, compensate them for doing so, nor penalize them for not doing so. Corporations as entities of business should have little or no involvement in the political process. The government is charged with serving and protecting "the People", and a corporation is not a person.

Corporations must have access to and protection under the legal system. Corporations must have the right to sue and be sued, and be subject to civil and criminal penalties. However, in criminal proceedings, only the officers, directors, or employees can be charged. There is no "body" (corpus) to the corporation to charge or imprison. This alone is ample evidence that a corporation is not a person.

The officers, directors, and other employees must be accountable for criminal charges and civil or criminal penalties when their actions as an officer, director, or employee of the corporation would expose an individual to the same charges or penalties. A corporation must not protect a person against being responsible for their actions, and a corporation may be required to share the financial liability for the actions of it's officers, directors, and employees. "I was just doing my job" or "just following orders" does not shield a person from any criminal liability for their actions. It may shield an employee from personal financial liability if they were acting as an agent of the corporation, in which case the corporation is at least jointly, and may be exclusively liable for financial damages and penalties.

While a corporation in civil legal proceedings is treated very similar to a person, a corporation is clearly not a person in a criminal proceeding. In the political arena, a corporation is very different from a person. Corporations don't have the rights of a person, they have only the rights granted to them by their creators. Corporations are created by the government, which are agents of the governed people. Therefore, the rights of a corporation come directly from the government, and indirectly from the people whom those governments serve. For the reasons stated above, those rights must be different than the rights of a person.

Any interpretation of a corporation as a person is seriously flawed and eventually leads to the government being a servant of corporations, and that always leads to disaster.

Edit: 2011-10-21. Clarified the section on civil and criminal liability under the legal system.

Update: 2011-11-08. I just read an article that pointed out some of the concerns raised in the "Citizens United v FEC" case.
"... Its constitutional theory would permit Congress to ban a book as well as a 30-second TV spot if the book satisfied the operative definition of an ‘electioneering communication' and the book's corporate publisher paid for the book with general treasury funds (as it almost certainly would) ... The breadth of that concession is staggering," reads the brief, especially since it's common for such books to come out during campaign season.
The brief continued: "The fact that such books could be banned under the government's theory unless funded by a PAC vividly illustrates why those criteria (to protect speech) are insufficient to safeguard the important First Amendment interests at stake."
Limiting a corporations ability to publish and sell books of a political nature is certainly not the intent nor is it in the best interests of anyone to limit that ability. The rules need to be constructed in a way that allows them to publish and sell such books (or movies, magazines, etc), but doesn't allow them to use that as a means of contributing to campaigns or lobbying the government. For example, giving the books away (or selling them below cost) in support or a campaign, party, or candidate might be prohibited as an illegal contribution by a corporation. Offering a candidate a book/movie deal or job during a campaign or while in office might be prohibited as lobbying or an illegal contribution, or even bribery if the circumstances justified such a charge. This area of allowing commercial political speech is deserving of more attention, but it doesn't alter my position that corporate access to government must be extremely limited and any view of a corporation as a person is seriously flawed.

Update: 2012-06-29
My second article on this topic.

Related Links:
The Story of Citizens United vs F.E.C. video.


  1. Damn! It was really hard to comment on this. I had to create a whole flippin' blogger account. UGH!

    I followed in from the Carlin FB. I thought your point was why corp's should not be treated like people. I don't think you made the argument strong enough. I was looking for something like ...

    If corp's can influence legislation then at least one will be unscrupulous enough to influence laws to give themselves an unfair advantage in their market therefore dominating it and becoming a duly ordained part of a growing oligarchy.

  2. I might incorporate that for clarification, but that's part of the reason why corporations should have extremely limited access to government, elections, and elected officials.