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.
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.
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 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.
“one (as a human being, a partnership, or a corporation) that is recognized by law as the subject of rights and duties.” 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.
“Corporations have rights because natural persons have rights. It is sometimes said that corporations are “creations of the state,” but that’s not really true. Corporations are created by people — they are merely recognized by the state. True, corporations get some benefits from the state, such as limited liability and perpetual life, but in our modern society, most people get benefits from the state.”
“Corporations are associations of individuals, with a right to defend their interests. For example, suppose a small manufacturer would be bankrupted unless it can receive government funds under the stimulus plan passed earlier this year. If the governor refuses to accept stimulus funds, shouldn’t the corporation — as a corporation, an association of shareholders — be able to criticize that governor, and even advocate his defeat?”
A corporation is allowed to own property and enter contracts. It can also be sued and held liable under both civil and criminal law.
“[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.”
“I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t just stop with speech, as there is clearly so much more to be done to fully guarantee corporate-persons the rights to “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that their fellow persons enjoy under our beloved Constitution.”
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.”
“corporate speech […] isn’t free because corporations, unlike individuals, are not full-fledged members of the community. As inanimate entities, they are incapable of what the political philosopher Michael Sandel calls ‘a willingness to sacrifice individual interests for the sake of the common good, and the ability to deliberate well about common purposes and ends.'”
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.
“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.”
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.”
“Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office.”
“corporations can outlive a normal human lifetime, and so have a temporal advantage over actual humans: corporations can use delay till a human contender’s money is spent, or life expended. Of course, the best insurance for corporations is to use the wealth invested in them, and their possibly superhuman lifetimes, to acquire dominating political influence so as to shape the government and the laws to their particular economic advantage.”
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.
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.”
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
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.
“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.”
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.
“the doctrine of granting constitutional rights to corporations gives a thing illegitimate privilege and power that undermines our freedom and authority as citizens. While corporations are setting the agenda on issues in our Congress and courts, We the People are not; for we can never speak as loudly with our own voices as corporations can with the unlimited amplification of money.”
“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.'”
“prior to the “Citizens United v. FEC” case, for more than 100 years businesses and corporations had no rights that progressives and Democrat political hacks were bound to respect; now businesses all over America can fight back with political donations to support politicians who strongly believe in capitalism and free-market policies.”
“I, for one, am delighted by the [Citizen United] decision. I believe it’s long overdue. “Corporate-persons have long faced discrimination, and I am sick to death of seeing any kind of person singled out for any sort of discrimination in our society.”
“According to Jonah Goldberg’s 2007 book, “Liberal Fascism,” progressivism “is a civil religion run by an all powerful God-state.” The “United Citizens v. FEC” case has rightly restored personhood status of American businesses and corporations according to the original intent of the Constitution’s framers while taking away a potent weapon of the progressive movement – silencing Big Business.”
“If corporations can be denied rights because they receive benefits from the state, all our rights are in jeopardy.”
“In the United States today, virtually every small business, college and charity is incorporated. To suggest that corporations lack speech rights would affect a great many rights and protections that we have come to rely on. Be careful what you wish for.”
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.
“Perhaps if government is seen as untrustworthy it is because it has become untethered from the authority of the citizens and is for sale to the highest bidder. Perhaps what it needs is not to be further disempowered but rather to be reconnected to We the People.”
“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.”
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.”
“The corporation’s invocation of the first ten amendments symbolizes the transformation of our constitutional system from one of individual freedoms to one of organizational prerogatives.”
“Now that the personhood of corporations has been sustained, expanded and leveraged by Supreme Court right-wing activists, what are other ramifications? […] Shouldn’t it follow that when a corporation is bankrupted — killed — by its reckless management that its executives could be found guilty of the capital crime of murder?”