The Bush-Packed Supreme Court Thinks Corporations Are People Too


This week's Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case removes all limits on large corporations to finance and influence federal elections. In its ruling the court reverses a decades-old ruling barring companies from using their general funds to fund political campaigns, and guts pieces of the popular McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation. In so doing the Court implicitly embraces a 125 year-old precedent in the case of Santa Clara v. Santa Fe, where the Court first developed the legal doctrine of corporate personhood, explicitly granting corporations the same political and civil rights granted to human beings (historian Thom Hartmann discovered that the principle originated with a corrupt court clerk who added it to the case summary, rather than with the court itself).

But what if we accept corporate personhood as the current reality and instead focus on changing the rules so that corporations would also have to be bound by other limitations of humanity? How would corporations be different if they were indeed human-like?

If corporations were human, they would pause for sleep and recreation. When human families vacation, they frequently go to parks or natural places which they inherently recognize as part of the commons set apart from the marketplace. Many corporations know no such bounds; if resources are available, even in the nation’s National Parks, they will seek to develop them. Today’s modern corporations are 24/7 affairs that are always charging forward. The press for continuous growth and the need to deliver the next quarter’s earnings, make corporation’s urgency and intensity toward time a threat to many communities, which have other priorities like caring for children and elders, not the tireless quest to produce more profit.

If corporations were human, they would acknowledge their dependence on a healthy community for their well-being and contribute financially to the vibrancy of the community through payment of taxes. Fifty years ago, corporate taxes made up nearly 22 percent of the federal treasury receipts; today corporate taxes contribute less than 13 percent to the federal budget. The mindset of many large corporations is that of takers, looking to be supported by society with a stream of tax credits and preferential tax rates. According to a 2008 report by the Government Accounting Office, 25 percent of large U.S. corporations paid no federal income taxes in 2005 (the latest year studied) despite reporting collective sales exceeding $1.1 trillion.

If corporations were human, they would recognize that their brains are only one of many vital organs. The brain, which provides the executive function for the body whole, nonetheless consumes a relatively modest share of the body’s nutrition. A brain that swells beyond a normal healthy state is a dire threat to the body and most often requires the dramatic intervention of surgery. An inhuman corporation provides ever-larger amounts of nutrition in the form of money to its executive function. These swollen levels of pay are a cancer that often results in excessive risk, putting both the corporation and society at risk.

If corporations were human, they would be accountable to society when they break the law and would be punished with a loss of their freedoms. When a person steals or murders, they are sent to prison, where they lose their freedom to practice their trade and to participate in the economic and political life of the community. When corporations produce products they know to be deadly, or withhold important information on the safety of their products are they not guilty of murder? When corporations submit fraudulent financial statements to investors, or engage in deceptive marketing practices that cost people their homes or their life savings, are they not guilty of felonious theft? Shouldn’t corporate criminals, particularly repeat offenders, be denied their freedom to practice business and have their license revoked?

If corporations were human, they would one day die. Unlike the finitude of human life, modern corporations can live forever under the law, growing in size and gaining political and economic power generation after generation.

It was not always so. When our nation was young, people recognized both the good things that business contributed but also the risks of concentrating too much power in the hands of businesses. Business charters were granted for a set period of time, commonly a generation, after which time the businesses would be dissolved. While businesses could still prosper and grow to have influence, they were kept from becoming "too big to fail"—a condition in which their size alone was a threat to the social order.

Corporations can’t have it both ways—insisting upon the political and civil rights that human beings are guaranteed under the Constitution, while at the same time refusing to live within the constraints of human life in terms of longevity, size, accountability and support of the communities that grant them their existence.

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