Surpreme Court Ruling that Corporations are People Too?Politics / US Politics Jan 22, 2010 - 10:09 AM GMT
Thursday’s landmark Supreme Court decision has been called everything from proper to despicable and misguided. Clearly in the historical realm, every nation, empire, and circumstance of human organization has clear signposts that mark first progress, then the eventual destruction of the entity. That is not meant to be melodramatic; it is simply the natural progression of societies. If you don’t agree, ask the Greeks, Romans, and British. So where does Thursday’s decision fit into America’s progression?
Framing the Discussion
Once again it becomes necessary to properly define terms and concepts since failure to do so will almost certainly result in the forthcoming analysis being misconstrued.
The establishment of the corporation as an ‘artificial person’ by the Supreme Court in 1819 was used to give the corporation (an assembly of individuals of indeterminate size) certain rights that were normally reserved for individual people or ‘natural persons’. For example, a corporation can enter into contracts, file suit, and be sued. Corporations can even be charged with and convicted of criminal offenses, although generally, criminal charges often pass through the corporate veil to members of management as well. The corporation as it were cannot commit a crime of its own volition, but only by the action or inaction of someone entrusted with making decisions for it. One right that has not been conferred to corporations is the right to physically vote in political elections, however, corporations have been able to financially support political candidates for quite some time now.
Until the mid 1800’s, the government issued all corporate charters, and the applicant had to demonstrate that what they were doing or proposing to do would be in the public interest (a novel idea). How many corporations today do you think would fail this acid test? Even in the era of the public interest doctrine as we’ll call it, there were many folks including Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller who sought to skirt the public-interest doctrine by organizing as limited partnerships or Trusts.
At issue for the Supreme Court to decide was a 20-year old ban on corporations and labor unions providing money for campaign advertising. The Supremes took it a step further and also struck down part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law that banned corporate and union-paid ads in the closing weeks of political campaigns. While on the surface, this looks like a victory for the First Amendment; I think it does little more than pave the way for corporations to buy even more politicians; and to do so under the protection of the law.
The entire issue comes down to the corporation as a person. Is the corporation entitled to all the same rights as a natural person? The very fact that the Supreme Court in 1819 designated corporations as artificial persons rather than natural ones indicates that they are not. Keep in mind that the spirit of corporate law is largely centered on limited liability, not enabling the corporation to wield disproportionate power in the political process (which arguably was already happening anyway). Take our largest corporations, with billions of dollars in quarterly profits.
They are generally controlled by a Board of Directors and major shareholders; the number of which is comparable to those in attendance at a typical Little League baseball game. It is naïve to think that the American people can muster as much financial influence in Washington as even one large company, let alone all of them. The bottom line here is that a corporation is a creation of man and is not entitled to all of the same rights that are imbued in us by God. The framers of the Constitution, following along this line of reasoning, focused the founding documents on individual liberties rather than commercial ones.
Detractors of this line of thinking will accuse me of being hypocritical because on one hand I urge government to get out of the affairs of business, yet on this issue I encourage it to do the opposite. To reconcile these two disparate positions, one must understand the intended purpose of government. Our government was designed to protect the rights of the individual and to prevent people from running roughshod over each other. With that in mind, it would stand to reason that government shouldn’t be telling firms the maximum amount they can pay employees. It shouldn’t be bailing those companies out when they fail either. But it certainly should be preventing companies from stampeding the American people by making the electoral and legislative processes available to the highest bidder.
In conclusion, it is my opinion that what happened yesterday was misconstrued as being a First Amendment issue when it really is an issue of equal protection. Granted, groups like the NRA and other issue-specific groups have been shut out of certain political advertising in the days leading up to elections. That is wrong because those groups are speaking (hopefully) on behalf of their members as a cooperative. A corporation really can’t make that claim at the same level. The White House immediately issued a statement decrying the ruling, and although I agree in this instance, it must be pointed out that every single President in the corporate era has gotten money from corporations for their campaigns. That generalization can be extended to nearly every other political office in the country as well. The bottom line is that this activity was already going on anyway, but now the way has been paved for it to accelerate and increase in magnitude.
Yesterday’s ruling will allow corporations to dump unlimited funds into the coffers of political candidates and overtly buy the legislative process, using the government as a tool to enrich corporate bosses. It is easy to see why the power elite who controls the major corporations was most dissatisfied with the public interest doctrine in place in the 1800s. They greatly prefer that their companies be held to the doctrine of shareholder interest since any action that increases shareholder value is deemed appropriate and acceptable even if it encroaches on the rights of other citizens. Make no mistake about it; the government has already largely been purchased by the highest bidder. Yesterday’s decision legitimizes this previous illegitimate activity and gives the green light to a complete takeover of our government by large corporations.
I’d like to close with two quotations by Thomas Jefferson:
“Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”
“I have the consolation of having added nothing to my private fortune during my public service, and of retiring with hands clean as they are empty.”
By Andy Sutton
Andy Sutton holds a MBA with Honors in Economics from Moravian College and is a member of Omicron Delta Epsilon International Honor Society in Economics. His firm, Sutton & Associates, LLC currently provides financial planning services to a growing book of clients using a conservative approach aimed at accumulating high quality, income producing assets while providing protection against a falling dollar. For more information visit www.suttonfinance.net
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