In 2010’s Citizens United v the FEC, the US Supreme Court decided that corporations have the same right to free speech as any living, breathing human being. Not only did the decision enable big businesses to flood our elections with vast amounts of capital unavailable to peasants ( or any individual, really ), but it reinforced the legal identity of corporations as “people” which — not who — are endowed with rights. The notion of corporate rights is interesting considering that the US was founded on the ideals of liberalism, a political philosophy which emerged from the so-called Age of Enlightenment, rooted in a principle called natural law. The thinkers who developed these ideas — John Locke, Thomas Paine, John Milton, & others — would be confused ( at least ) or ( more likely ) horrified at the idea that an abstract institution, such as a corporation, has rights.
And here’s why…
The Origins of Natural Law & Natural Rights
The first thing to understand is that the whole idea of “rights” is pretty new in the western world. Before the European monarchic systems were overthrown in favor of liberal ones ruled by laws, nobody really had rights per se aside from the rich & powerful — so, mostly kings, popes, & other jerks. Sure, most folks could speak freely or enjoy privacy in their own home — until the king got miffed at what you said or decided he needed your stuff. Rulers got away with this because, with the help of corrupt religious institutions & a bit of violence, enough people accepted ( or were too scared to challenge ) the idea that autocrats had the “divine right to rule.” The king was the king because the Almighty Lord said so.
Then, something wonderful happened — books. When printing was invented, the people could spread & exchange new ideas much faster and popular thinkers began to question the absolute authority of the state & of religion. Exchange with African & Arab cultures revived European interest in things like Greek literature, which the Muslims had preserved in ‘Arabic after the Church torched the scrolls of heathens like Plato & Aristotle. The Greek concept of natural law went viral among the political thinkers & radical intellectuals who used it to challenge the supposed right-to-rule of monarchs & to explore alternative theories of government.
Natural Rights Broke the Ideology of Monarchism
Theorists like John Locke & Thomas Paine adapted the popular idea of natural law to argue that people had natural rights which could not be taken away — even by God’s appointed ruler. The world was governed by a set of natural laws which could be discovered by using reason, since reason was a part of human nature & human nature was a part of the natural order. Using observations about the natural order as evidence, they reasoned that violating certain rights went against natural law. According to John Locke, people had the right to live, to be free, & to the products of their labor. That may seem basic but, at the time, it was revolutionary and not just in the figurative “blow-your-mind” sense but also in a literal “the-French-actually-cut-the-king’s-head-off-at-the-end” sense of the word.
Rights Come from Natural Order, Not Social Order
Which natural rights we had was often controversial but the founding thinkers of liberalism agreed that — whatever they were & however many — they definitely existed. To John Locke & many of his peers, natural law had greater authority than any king or pope because they saw natural law as a direct creation of God’s, which conferred moral authority to it. Whatever we believe, the important point here is that the order of the natural world was sacred to folks like John Locke and, religious or not, many of us today still harbor a mysterious suspicion that there is something pretty damned important about it.
Besides — even if the existence of natural rights were someday proved to be mere superstition — it would nonetheless be a superstition which empowered the people to storm the Bastille and that has got to be worth something.
Is a Non-Sense Idea
The idea that a corporation — an abstract organizational tool — is endowed with rights is incoherent. Corporations having rights makes as much sense as vacuum cleaners deserving justice — the concept just does not apply. Advocates for corporate rights argue that corporations are just groups of people and, since people have rights, corporations have rights by extension. The reality, however, is the opposite because corporations are specifically designed to limit the degree of human control & involvement.
Understanding What a Corporation Is
A corporation is essentially an organization formed with a specific intention, often to profit, and the most basic is called a joint-stock company. As a tool to encourage investment, the idea to sell stock in a company ( called “shares” ) was ingenious. Stock was invented when a lot of trade was done by navigating ships with maps that had spooky dragons inked in the margins, which was risky business. Entrepreneurs had concerns about investing in trading vessels which often got sunk, lost, pirated, & possibly even eaten by monsters. The Dutch fixed this by selling fractions of a ship to decrease the risks for investors, resulting in more funds for business & higher profits. Investing in 1/10th of 10 separate ships was far less risky than investing in 1 ship which might easily be smooshed by a watery beast.
To protect investors from being cheated, new laws were written that required corporate businesses to act in their shareholders’ interests by holding managers accountable for decisions that were dishonest, incompetent, or intentionally reduced profits. Corporate history is long & complex but the result is that today’s corporations are run by folks who are legally required to serve the profit of shareholders. The important point is that corporations are driven by profit — not by human reason. Corporate managers are not free to act according to what they think is right or just or best for our society — in fact, the logic of profit sometimes forbids it.
Corporate Motives Exist Independently of Human Desires
The children of humanity share the same set of basic interests & concerns — clean air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, a shelter over our heads, & social interactions to keep us from going crazy. This fundamentally shared aspect of the human experience informs our behavior, allowing us to act ( most of the time, anyway ) in ways that seem reasonable to our peers — this is a big part of what the liberal thinkers called our “human nature.” And corporations simply do not share this human nature. While incorporation is a handy tool for organizing business & finance, corporate entities necessarily end up possessing a “thirst” for money & a “hunger” for resources that may or may not be consistent with the goals of society or of individuals.
Giving “Rights” to Corporations
Threatens the Existence of Rights Altogether
The people of the United States need to remember why we instituted rights in the first place or we risk regression to a higher-tech version of the Dark Ages, destroying what progress we made so far toward establishing truly just & civil societies. We developed the idea of rights precisely to overthrow the “right” of powerful institutions — at the time, monarchy & the Church — to act in their self-interest when it opposed human reason or well-being. The purpose of rights is to ensure that people, who by nature share common interests & the ability to reason, remain in control of society’s institutions — and not the other way around.
Corporate entities are made by people — they are not people. To paraphrase the incisive query of the Hebrew teacher, Isaiah — “shall the clay criticize the potter who formed it?” There was a time when institutions were held more sacred & cared for more diligently than the people whom the institutions were made to serve, all for the greed & thirst for power of a few. Our ancestors fell victim to the lie before and, now upon hearing the lie again, we must renew our understanding to remind our society that corporations are not people.
P.S. Just to be clear, I am not endorsing the philosophies, politics, or ideologies of John Locke, Thomas Paine, et al, or of liberalism in general — nor am I dismissing them altogether. My purpose here was to explain natural law, rights, & the historical context of those ideas. As a socialist, I fundamentally disagree with many of the underlying assumptions of liberal ideology but — speaking strictly in relation to the European autocracies of ages past — the classical liberals’ conception of rights seems to have mostly been an improvement.