Do Corporations Have Rights?

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 not long ago when the Supreme Court decided in the “Citizen’s United” case 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 that, as persons, they had a right to 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.

None of these court decisions considered the rather basic fact that if corporations have rights they must also have responsibilities. While fines are levied against corporations in some cases for the atrocities they commit they can be “held responsible” for those acts, but this can hardly be called “having responsibilities.” The only responsibilities corporations acknowledge are to their stockholders and these, too, can hardly be called “responsibilities,” since it is simply what corporations are supposed to do — namely, maximize profits. There is very little, if any, talk about responsibilities to “stakeholders” in corporate inner circles — or about moral or ethical responsibilities, either. Further, it’s never clear just who the corporations are. Are they the CEOs or the boards that govern them? Or are they the stockholders? Or are they the engineer who turns the handle that releases poisonous gas and kills 2500 people? The question threatens to become positively metaphysical. But assigning corporations rights without acknowledging their responsibilities makes no sense whatever. Rights without responsibilities can apply only to children and the mentally challenged, otherwise the notion is absurd on its face. (I hesitate to discuss the question whether corporations can be said to be mentally challenged.)

I have always thought that the concept of 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. Those in power in general are not to be trusted. But if we balance the power among the executive, legislators and judges we can control the abuse that nearly always follows from too much power in the hands of one person. That’s the idea.

The United States Supreme Court was the result of this thinking, of course, as it worked its way down through John Locke, Thomas Jefferson,  and James Madison. 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 the status of persons with rights under the First Amendment is simply stupid, if not absurd — as noted above. And it certainly does not appear to have been apolitical. Not only are corporations not persons, unlimited donations to a political election clearly do not constitute free speech.

In any event, the concept of “person” is a moral concept fully explored in the ethics of Immanuel Kant and previously used by the Founders to apply to citizens with both 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: Kant stressed responsibilities, or duties, over rights. It is precisely because we can recognize our duties to other persons (who are also ends in themselves) that we have rights. Responsibilities are primary; rights are derivative. But corporations are clearly not “ends in themselves”; they are simply a means to an end, namely, profit. Further, as mentioned, they have no responsibilities. 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; extending the notion further as the court did recently borders on the bizarre.

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 stacks of money to political candidates amounts to. This has to be one of the worst decisions ever to come from this Court and it deserves to be overthrown by a Constitutional amendment, and a movement to do so is afoot. That movement, however, seems sluggish at best — a reflection, perhaps, of the population’s general indifference to political issues and the unwillingness of those in power to bite the hand that feeds them.

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4 thoughts on “Do Corporations Have Rights?

  1. Its a long road from corporations have a right to make legal contracts, therefor they must be considered people, to corporations are people with all the rights and no responsibilities.

  2. I agree with this 100%. That court decision solidified an already bad practice making it worse. Last night, a congressman was on Bill Maher and he said he spends 30 hours a week fundraising. That means courting corporations, lobbyists and wealthy donors. That does not leave a lot of time to govern and go talk to the citizens.

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