So what the hell is 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney talking about? According to Wikipedia, “In the United States, corporations were recognized as having rights to contract, and to have those contracts honored the same as contracts entered into by natural persons, in Dartmouth College v. Woodward, decided in 1819. In the 1886 case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, 118 U.S. 394, the Supreme Court recognized that corporations were recognized as persons for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment.” This concept is referred to “corporate personhood” or in Romney’s words, “corporations are people”.
Jeremy White, International Business Times, (broken link) writes:
“What is a person is not just an abstract concept for philosophers to ponder. It is has been a central question in deciding what constitutes a legal actor, someone (or something) who the law can protect or prosecute. One interpretation informed the Citizens United v Federal Election Commission 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which determined that corporations have the same free speech rights as people and can therefore spend as much as they like on campaigns.
“An 1818 U.S. Supreme Court decision was the first to recognize a corporation’s ability to own property and to enjoy the constellation of rights that go along with it, defining a corporation as an “artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law.” But the 1886 case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad took things a step further when the court affirmed that the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection covered a railroad company fighting against tax discrimination.
“Curiously, the court had almost nothing to say on what, in retrospect, was a seismic shift. The headnote for the case stated only that, “The court does not want to wish to hear argument on the question of whether the provision of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.”
“More than a century passed before Citizens United, but the precedent for anthropomorphizing corporations was set. For example, a 1977 case gave corporations 5th Amendment protection against double jeopardy in part by suggesting they would otherwise experience “embarrassment” and “anxiety.” The courts have extended virtually every part of the Bill of Rights to corporations, though Greenwood wryly noted that a Second Amendment case has never been litigated.
“Greenwood said that a basic argument for seeing corporations as persons with constitutional privileges derives from a “fetishism of the rights,” essentially a sense that the more free speech, the better, no matter who is speaking. He is not alone in pointing out the danger of collapsing legal distinctions between corporate and human persons.
“Too frequently the extension of corporate constitutional rights is a zero-sum game that diminishes the rights and powers of real individuals,” attorney Carl Mayer wrote in a paper on corporations and the Bill of Rights. “Equality of constitutional rights plus an inequality of legislated and de facto powers leads inexorably to the supremacy of artificial over real persons.”
In one of my favorite movies, Fight Club (1999), the narrator states: “When deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything, the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks.” But corporate “persons” already have much greater influence. As we have seen by from the worldwide fallout of the US “Great Recession”, global economy and security has become a matter of corporate dealings.
Reuters reports today that: “Global financial upheaval will be on the agenda when President Barack Obama meets Friday with U.S. business leaders, including chief executives from Johnson & Johnson, Wells Fargo & Co, US Bancorp, Xerox Corp, BlackRock Inc and Silver Bridge. Obama holds his latest in a series of talks with Big Business against the backdrop of a euro zone debt crisis that has hit financial markets worldwide, adding to investor anxiety in the aftermath of last week’s U.S. credit downgrade.” Some people are afraid of “Big Brother” however I think we all have much more to fear from “Big Business”.