My father created a corporation. He owned a very small business in New York City, helping manufacturers ship cartons of records overseas. Sometimes he had one employee. He started the business the year I was born, and called it Steven Shipping Company. A few years later he incorporated.
That corporation was a person, my father, and nobody else. But many corporations are enormous. Twenty American corporations had annual sales over $100 billion in 2011, and 479 earned revenues over $5 billion. In August 2011, Mitt Romney said, “Corporations are people”. Should these giants be considered to be “people”?
The treatment of corporations as equivalent to persons has a long history. One of the earliest Supreme Court decisions, “Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward” in 1819, affirmed the right of corporations to make contracts, as people did. In 1830, Chief Justice Marshall stated, “The great object of an incorporation is to bestow the character and properties of individuality on a collective and changing body of men.” The equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, were designed to insure that African Americans enjoyed equal rights. Soon they were applied to corporations.
The 2012 elections were heavily influenced by the 2010 Supreme Court decision in “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission”, which ruled that corporate political spending is protected, because corporations also have a First Amendment right to free speech. That removal of traditional restrictions on corporate political advertising ensured that spending in 2012 far exceeded all previous elections.
But corporations do not act like people. They are created to make money. Their goal is to increase the bottom line. No human being is so narrowly focused. In exchange for our rights we have responsibilities to our fellow citizens and to our society. People who only care about how many dollars they can collect make poor citizens. Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissent in “Citizens United” argued that because corporations have no purpose outside of profit-making, they, unlike people, have no morality and no loyalty.
The Declaration of Independence assures “certain inalienable rights” to people. The Constitution specifies those rights for American citizens. Corporations are not mentioned. It is more than ironic that the same conservative justices who claim that they make decisions based on the framers’ “original intent” wish to give human rights to corporate entities that the framers could not have imagined. That decision, among many others, demonstrates that “original intent” is a convenient justification, which is applied here and ignored there, in order to reach preconceived decisions.
Corporations are not people, but a small number of people do control huge corporations. The political contributions made by giant corporations do not represent collective decisions of their workers or stockholders. A few top executives use corporate funds, which they control but do not own, to try to influence elections. The problem with treating corporations as people for the purpose of political speech is that it provides another opportunity for rich and powerful corporate executives to magnify their speech with money which belongs to others. Because winning elections depends on getting one’s message out through expensive media, rich people already have outsized influence over politicians of both parties. President Obama, like every recent President, gave plum federal appointments to supporters whose main qualification was their ability to raise money for his campaign.
Reversing the “Citizens United” decision with a law or an amendment to the Constitution may not be an appropriate way to deal with the outsized role of money in American elections. But corporations must be regulated by government. We have learned that lesson over and over again, most recently in the financial collapse caused by a small number of extraordinarily greedy corporate executives with no social conscience or other traits which would qualify them as “people”.
If corporations have the right to political speech, they ought also to have the social responsibilities of people – to look out for our neighbors, to preserve our communities, to pay a fair share of taxes for the services we receive. Those who argue for the rights of corporations as people should also explain how we can ensure that corporations act like good citizens.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 11, 2012