Skip to content

Corporate rights

Back in the late 1970′s or early 1980′s I saw an advertisement from an oil company (I think it was Mobile) asking the question – if individuals have rights, should not corporations also have rights? The question stuck with me, as then I had no idea what answer made sense.

Many years later the answer is to me is now very clear. Individuals rights are central to our form of society (or at least the form our society was meant to be in the beginning). Corporations should not have rights meant for individuals. Individuals associated with a corporation could choose to exercise their rights to aid the corporation – or not – but those individuals should then be liable if the corporation causes harm.

Corporations can muster huge economic resources – far out of proportion from the means of individuals. There must be a counter-balance, else our society will become dominated by corporations over individuals.

To be clear – I find the role of corporations as tightly-focused profit-seeking organizations to be entirely reasonable. Corporations are inherently amoral. We need a framework within which corporations can seek profit, but are kept from immoral and destructive behaviors.

Our history is rich with examples of abusive organizations. European, British, and American history traces the story where individual rights were clearly defined and strengthened, to preclude the sorts of abuses of the past. Those hard-won rights were meant to give individuals some degree of parity against larger institutions.

The recent Citizens United decision from the Supreme Court applies the First Amendment right of free speech to corporations – to my mind this an enormous and destructive mistake. Granting to corporations the rights meant for individuals tilts the balance in favor of corporations.

I am slightly encouraged that the Supreme Court decision was a near thing, with strong dissent. What I do not know is where to go from here. I did not know that the notion of Corporate Personhood was over a century old. To my mind, this is wrong. A corporation is not a person. The rights accorded to individuals should never be confused with the roles allowed to corporations.

(The more I dig into economics and politics, the more it seems that within that domain the last century has been has been little more than a holding pattern. Problems identified and fought against over a century ago remain relevant and unresolved today. Much else has changed, but the base problems remain.)

The interests of corporations should not be dominant, if we wish to have any sort of humane society.