Should corporations suffer the same consequences as United States citizens? Carl Pettit argues in the case of corporate personhood and their constitutional rights.
The struggles between corporations, the State (often teeming with current and former corporate types) and citizens living outside corporate structures are only going to increase as massive, international companies continue to grow in size and power. Antitrust laws—many of which might have been, or will likely be written by authors sympathetic to corporate goals and hierarchy—probably won’t do much to stop the tidal wave of multinational dominance in the spheres of commerce, communications (media consolidations) and politics.
No, this article isn’t a metaphorical cry for the little guy to rise up against the corporate machine. Rather, it’s a satirical call for a common sense approach to the application of constitutional rights regarding our neighbors the corporations, and the corporate social responsibility underlying the arguments of companies asking for, and acquiring fundamental “personal” rights.
While you may or may not disagree with the idea of corporate personhood, it’s a concept that has been around for a long time. Modern advocates and critics of corporate personhood often cite the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United, which gave that conservative non-profit political group the same First Amendment rights of free speech (and hence the power to donate money) as a private citizen.
A corporation acting as a “legal person” in the realm of business and industry, entering into contracts, owning land and defending its interests is a necessary legal reality that allows commerce and work to go ahead. When corporations begin to act in the realm of governmental policy making and politics in general, based on what’s best for shareholder profits, and not the greater populace, we run into a serious conundrum… because if corporations are actually people, they’re clearly sociopaths.
Profit and market success, if not absolute commercial dominance, is the drive behind a corporation’s raison d’être. Clever media campaigns (the BP oil spill) might instruct you otherwise, but unlike people, corporations don’t have the moral instinct to judge right from wrong. Certain corporations could very well (and do) make such a distinction a matter of policy, but it’s not part of their DNA. A typical multinational is a “person” skilled in the art of faking empathy and sympathy, yet unable to experience these emotions itself—not dissimilar to a sociopath.
As corporations garner more and more constitutional rights—which were set up to protect private citizens—perhaps they should be made to suffer the same penalties the rest of us have to endure. In many states, the death penalty is still applied for murder, and lengthy jail terms are handed down for manslaughter and negligent homicide. While I’m not a proponent of the death penalty, I do recognize its existence in society… but how do you slay a corporation (a person) that willfully causes the death of human beings through negligence, or as a result of immoral actions? Hanging or lethal injection just won’t do.
Business conglomerates can do good, or they can do injurious wrong, just like any other citizen—although unlike a man or woman, a business collective is not morally accountable. If I kill someone (and get caught), or accidentally run someone over with my car, I will suffer some hard consequences. I suffer because I am a human being capable of emotional and physical pain, guilt and remorse.
If a corporation decides to kill a group of people through action or inaction—perhaps increasing profit margins or allowing for the acquisition of resources previously out of reach—or accidentally releases poisonous gas into the atmosphere causing the death of thousands, there might be steep penalties to pay, a loss of credibility and a significant financial hit. A few chosen individuals might even fall as well, but in most cases, after the preliminary damage has subsided, the corporation will recover and continue to thrive.
Corporate “responsibility” is not the same kind of responsibility a citizen with one heart beating inside of his or her chest bears. There has never been, nor will there ever be a singular, beating heart inside of a corporate body. Business groups require certain rights, of course, but there needs to be a limit to those rights. When the interests of a company harms the citizens of the society in which it operates, it can be very hard to take (i.e. kill) that corporation down, and thus keep the corporation from wrongdoing in the first place.
If the day ever comes when a corporation can plead the Fifth Amendment, insanity, or simply go in for a few sessions of therapy with a corporate shrink (giving new meaning to the term) for the heinous wrongs it commits, we’re in for a lot of trouble. Who wouldn’t want all of the rights and privileges of citizenship, without the responsibilities and risks associated with those rights? The answer is simple: anyone with more than little to no morality—or a corporation.
Image Credit: Patrick Feller/Flickr