Citizens United: Corporate personhood is a crazy concept

April 4, 2013
William Barrett, Eitan Fenson and Jerry Shapiro

Some 270,000 citizens across our nation are now aware of the pernicious behavior of certain large corporations and their use of their supposed constitutional rights as "persons" in order to defy labor and environmental laws, hamper food inspections, flout safety laws and more.

Much has been written about how the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision will make it easier for a corporation to fund self-serving political advertising. But the issue is larger than Citizens United. Corporations have been using personhood protections from the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and 14th amendments to acquire special rights as a person, then using those privileges to thwart state and federal legislation regulating corporate behavior.

Our nation's founders were deeply suspicious of the power of a corporation, especially in influencing political decisions. They had seen the ravages of the British East India Company, which ran its own police, courts and prisons in India for two centuries, with the express purpose of extracting as much wealth as possible to benefit its stockholders in England.

Thus, a corporate charter could only be granted by state law for a specific public purpose with a certain fixed lifetime. Until the 20th century, corporations were tightly constrained by state and federal law.

Those constraints did not hamper the nation's prosperity or the growth of business. On the contrary, the period of 1850 through 1900 saw an immense expansion of business and prosperity, mostly through ordinary non-corporate companies. All of these corporate controls have been swept aside since 1900 through many Supreme Court decisions in favor of corporate personhood.

Why should we care about rising corporate power? The short answer is that a for-profit corporation has a single goal, which is to maximize the return on its stockholder investment. If a corporation is to benefit its employees or society at large, that benefit has to arise from the workings of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" in a free, competitive marketplace.

And that system only works well when there is real, free-market competition, with no monopolies, no false advertising, and strong government regulation. Smith's invisible hand works very well for producing and selling cars, houses, cell phones, and household appliances. It often fails to protect employees from exploitation through low wages, long hours, arbitrary plant closings and unsafe working conditions.

Thomas Jefferson saw the danger clearly, writing in an 1816 letter: "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

The governmental remedy for corporate excesses has been a patchwork of special laws and bureaus: the Sherman Anti-trust act, Securities and Exchange Commission, National Labor Relations Board, the FDA, EPA, OSHA and more.

We need these as much as we need the benefits of healthy corporations. Removing the fiction of corporate personhood alone cannot replace their work. But the work of these agencies is being hampered by dozens of Supreme Court decisions that assume corporate personhood in one form or another.

Slavery is the legal fiction that a person is property; corporate personhood is the legal fiction that property is a person. It's time to stop pretending that a corporation should have all the legal rights and privileges of a live person.

Come hear David Cobb a founder of the national Move To Amend movement, on Sunday April 7, hall A of the South Bay labor Temple, 5-7 pm, and learn why.

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