There is no mention of corporations in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States. But as early as 1819 in Dartmouth College vs. Woodward the Supreme Court suggested that corporations were entitled to make and enforce contracts, thus implying early on that they should be treated as persons with rights protected by the Constitution. By 1886 it was simply assumed “without argument” that corporations are persons. The absurdity of this interpretation became glaring clear recently when the Supreme Court decided in its wisdom that spending limits should not be placed on corporations under protection of the First Amendment. That is, corporations should be allowed to spend as much on political campaigns as they see fit on the grounds of freedom of speech. Yes, that’s right, corporations are not only persons, they are entitled to give politicians as much money as they want under the aegis of freedom of speech.
I have always thought that the balance of powers under the Constitution is one of the most brilliant ideas ever conceived by the human mind. It arose, of course, in a French mind in the person of Montesquieu in the seventeenth century who saw this balance as necessary for the protection of individuals in a political group. Kings are not to be trusted. Presidents are not to be trusted. But if we balance their power with that of legislators and judges we can control the abuse that nearly always follows from too much power in the hands of one person.
The Supreme Court was the result of this thinking, of course, as it trickled down through John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. And it is an inspired notion: a court that would be above political influence since members are not elected but appointed for life. And, indeed, some of the decisions of the court over the years have been brilliant. But the decision in January of 2010 to grant corporations rights under the First Amendment is simply stupid. Not only are corporations not persons, unlimited donations to a political election clearly do not constitute free speech.
The concept of “person” is a moral concept fully explored in the ethics of Immanuel Kant and used by the Founders to apply to citizens with rights and responsibilities. As Kant examined the notion, it was held that persons were “ends in themselves,” and never a means to an end. In other words it is morally wrong to use others for one’s own purposes. But corporations are clearly not “ends in themselves,” and are putatively a means to an end, namely, profit. The appropriation of a moral concept for legal purposes by the Court in 1819 and applied to an entity that was not even human was inappropriate, but its use in 2010 is nonsensical.
The absurdity of this decision can be seen by considering what other rights are guaranteed to persons under the First Amendment, namely, the right to practice religion as one sees fit, to assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances. The Constitution also guarantees every citizen the right to vote and to run for national office. Is the Court now saying that a corporation can run for President if it is thirty-five years old? Nonsense! But just as it would be absurd to think about corporations assembling, practicing religion, running for public office, or voting, it is also absurd to think that “they” have the right to free speech — assuming that this is what giving tons of money to political candidates amounts to. This has to be one of the worst decisions ever to come from this Court.