Posted by: danielfee | August 13, 2011

Corporations are Not People




No Mr. Romney, corporations are not people. As defined in the Random House dictionary, they are “an association of individuals, created by law or under the authority of law, having a continuous existence independent of the existences of its members and powers and liabilities distinct from those of its members.” While its members may derive economic benefit from the activities of corporations they are associated with, this does not transfer personhood onto the corporation.

In case you missed this story earlier this week, Mitt Romney, the presumed frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, emerged from his “Mittness protection program” and made an appearance at the Iowa State Fair. As he was addressing the small crowd gathered around him, one gentleman yelled out the question “What are you going to do to protect my Medicare and Social Security?” Mr. Romney responded “What I am not going to do is raise taxes.” A few in the crowd then shouted back and said to raise them on corporations. To which Mr. Romney committed the ultimate political gaff in responding by revealing his true beliefs when he replied “Corporations are people too, my friends.” The crowd groaned, and I am sure his campaign staff did the same. Almost everyone knows that Republicans, and some Democrats, believe that corporations are people, but they are just not supposed to say it out loud, especially if you’re the presidential frontrunner. Across most of the mainstream media this statement was treated as a gaff or a rhetorical slip and quickly dismissed. But why would the media want to dismiss this very revealing statement so quickly? Could it be that the so-called “liberal media” is actually a “corporate media” that likes the idea of them being considered as a person? When the Supreme Court issued its Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission ruling in 2010 they opened the floodgates for corporate money to flow into the election process. The ruling was unprecedented and overturned 100 years of election finance laws. Corporations, or for that matter any group, could now spend any amount they chose to influence an election. They are just prohibited from giving the money directly to the candidate. There are no other real restrictions; they don’t even need to be an American corporation or American citizens. It is easy enough to set up a front group and since these groups are not required to disclose their donors, any foreign country or foreign individuals can spend any amount of money to influence American elections. As a result, the cost of our elections will skyrocket and we as voters will be bombarded with direct mail pieces, radio and TV advertisements and any other form of marketing you can think of as we approach an election. If you don’t think this is true, just look at the recent Wisconsin recall elections for six Republican state senators. Between $30 to $40 million dollars poured into the State, mostly in support of the Republican incumbents, for a recall election. It is absolutely unheard of, to spend this amount of money on a state senate race, let alone a recall race. But this was the test run for the 2012 presidential election.

With the aid of the Supreme Court and Republican presidential candidates, like Mr. Romney, the final push is on to enshrine the concept of corporate personhood. What started with a headnote in the Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co. (1886) decision that was added by court reporter J.C. Bancroft Davis has now reached a point that presidential candidates are openly declaring that “corporations are people too, my friends” without being laughed off the national stage. In 1819, Chief Justice Marshall described the status of a corporation in the eyes of Federal law as:

“A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in a contemplation of law. Being the mere creature of law, it possesses only those properties which the charter of creation confers upon it, either expressly, or as incidental to its very existence. These are such as are supposed best calculated to effect the object for which it was created.”

He must be turning over in his grave.

If we do not see a strong push back from the voters in the 2012 elections against those who are pushing the concept of corporate personhood, all that will be left to do is amend the Constitution to read “We The Corporations of the World, in Order to form a more perfect free market …”. For me, until the day a corporation has a colonoscopy, I will stick with Chief Justice Marshall’s definition.




  1. right, i think in terms of literally dictionary defintions, romney was incorrect, but the point i (and others i know) took from it is that corporations are not animate beings of themselves, but rather they are made up by and shaped by the choices and energies of lots of individual people. the liberal media demonizes corporations at every turn as if they were somehow something other than the collective result of a lot of people doing their jobs. it is inconvenient to think of companies consisting of people because people are good. if people are good, then, oops, maybe companies are not necessarily 100% evil.

    as to the election law thing, i don’t know the details, but i have always found it very strange that media get to speak their piece about the issues of the day, but corporations are not. a lot of people in the media are bozos and very, very few know much about the private sector. corporations (or more so, the people in them) know about a lot about certain topics, like the business they are in (hateful a notion as that may be to some). for them to be silenced while journalists and politicians are free to say whatever they feel like about the private sector seems out of kilter.

    who knows more about the health industry: a journalist covering the sector or a politician who spends 1 hr a week thinking about it or somebody working in it 24/7 for years? likewise, why aren’t the people in the energy sector an integral and public part of the dialog about energy policy (or lack thereof).

    one can debate it, but the knowledge ratio is certainly not 100:0. i for one would like for corporations to be able to stand up and explain themselves and their industries and to offer ideas how to make things work better.

    more CEOs involved in the political process endorsing candidates, policies, etc. – I don’t see the problem.

    • John,
      Liberals, progressives or whatever you want to call us/them (I think the terms are interchangable) don’t hate corporations. They just recognize them for what they are. An artifical entity created by law with the sole purpose of making a profit for its owners and investors. I have two of them, an engineering business and a real estate business, and there purpose is for my wife and I to make money. But a corporation or the corporate structure cannot be the way to organize or run a society. Take Health Care for example, if left completely up to the health insurance corporations they would collect everyones premiums and then deny every claim to maximize profits. But if they denied every claim then no one would buy their product. So they only deny a percentage of them, usually the ones that will have the most expensive outlays. Over the past 30 years or so it has reached a point that they are paying out only 60 to 65 cents on every dollar collected. The big provision in Obamacare that they hated the most is the one that says 85 cents of every dollar must be spent on patients health care. As individuals we do not have enough power to push back against the abuses of corporations, therefore we have to do it collectively through our government. I still beleive that it should be a government of we the people not we the corporations. I don’t fault corporations for doing what they are charted to do, make money. But somebody has to put a stop to their abusive practices. Also, as a small business I don’t want large multi-national companies being given special privilages that I as a small business can’t get. It is an unfair advantage for them. Taxes for example, they will use off-shore tax havens to hold their profits. In 2004 they got a special one time tax holiday granted to bring these profits back into the country at 5% tax rate. Because they were going to use this money to create jobs, or so went the argument. That didn’t happen the money just went into bonus, stock buy backs and dividens. Now they are at it again looking for another tax holiday to do the same thing. Eric Cantor has been trying yo insert this “tax holiday” into various bills and now I am hearing some corporatist Democrats making the same arguments. If they give this tax holiday again this will signal to all business that you should move all productions, patents and everything else you can off-shore to use cheap labor in China, India or wherever and every 7-10 years you will be able to bring the money back in to the country at substantially reduced tax rates. Meanwhile, me and all other small business owners in this country have to pay the higher tax rates. This is what happens when large and multi-national corporations control the elected officials through campaign financing. One other thing that bothers liberals, and should bother conservatives too, is that within a corporation there are no restrictions on who owns it, or who runs it and makes the decisions to spend corporate money on influencing elections. So any foriegn person or entity, say the prince of Saudi Arabia, can spend whatever he wants in our election process. And guess what, with Citizens United you won’t even know it because the money is hidden throught various front groups that don’t have to disclose there doners. Why do conservatives defend this as free speech? Is this what you really want? Everyone of those people (that are citizens) that make up a corporation are free to speak and donate to whom ever they want as individuals. But when they are combined by the creation of law that provides them with special liability protections for them as individuals, they should not be able to use that entity to influence the elections.
      I have no problem with experts in a field bring their knowedge to the discussion, in fact they should. The problem occurs when they bring an agenda using their knowlege to manipulate the system and laws to maximize their profits, over addressing the problem. They use their influence of campaign donations as leverage to get their desired outcomes.
      Here is the thing I think that conservative don’t get about the liberal position. Corporations are not evil because they are trying to maximize their profits, that is what they are supposed to do. We take that as a given. What we object to is that they have to much influence to tilt everything in their direction. So if option A will provide a better outcome for the vast majority of people but option B will only provide a fraction of the benifits but the corporations will make and extra 2-3% profit at taxpayer expense, then option B gets chosen because of this influence.
      As for your coments on the specific industries, the energy sector is and has been an integral part of the dialog. They like it just the way it is. Just look at the profits they are making. They don’t want to make their positions too public because it might not sit too well with the public. Why do you think Dick Cheney kept his energy task force meetings secret?
      As far as the media goes, sure some are bozos and don’t know their A** from a hole in the ground,. Some others are quite good. But they are a special industry that is named specifically in the Constitution. You know freedom of the press and all that good 1st amendment stuff. So the media can be as stupid as they want and it is still protected. The Constitution doesn’t even mention the word corporation or even make any passing reference to them. Corporations were around when the Constitution was being written but they were provided no rights or protections in the Constitution. Why? What was the real Boston Tea Party about? It was special privilages being given to the East India Company by the king that allowed them to under cut the prices of local merchents. They were being driven out of business by the big multi-national of those days. Are we going to allow the big multi-nationals of our day to take perminate control of the government?

  2. so let me ask, in the companies you run, i assume you mistreat all your employees, your customers, your community, you dump your trash in the alley, and so forth – whatever it takes to maximize your profit, correct?

    i suspect you don’t and if you don’t, then why do you ascribe all these qualities to others just because they work for large corporations?

    i know a lot of people who work for large companies, who are business owners, etc., including a lot of very wealthy people. they just don’t behave in the ways you describe.

    i have also personally worked in dozens of very large companies myself and interacted with many hundreds of business executives. they don’t behave in the ways you suggest.

    i also worked for many years with the government and i just do not see any amazing difference in the behavior or motivations between the top people there vs. in private industry. they seek different things, but if you think gov’t employees are pure of heart, lacking the self-interest gene, or particularly clear thinkers, you are incorrect.

    that’s not to say there aren’t problems with individual motivations or collective behavior in corporations, but your characterizations just don’t ring true to me – and since these underlying beliefs power all the policy formulations that layer on top of them, it leads you to places that i simply can’t go.

    in general, i just don’t think things are as bleak, sinister, and miserable as you suggest – especially not in the United States. perhaps i am naive, but i have been to dozens of countries and worked for long periods in several of them and nobody has a better working society than ours – and that includes even during this current intense debate we are having in congress.

    perhaps you can find a small country somewhere that you might prefer to live in, but at the scale we operate, nobody does a better job of managing things – and no one has for 100 years.

    of particular note, the poor people in our country are rich by the standards of many countries, including many in europe. this is a rough patch we are going thru and things are bad for a lot of people, but even now things are better for most of those people than for the majority of people in the world.

    perhaps there is an even better place we can get to – i am confident there is – but i just can’t relate to these sweeping assertions of how life would be so much more perfect if only we did something that Ben Franklin wrote about or a small bank in North Dakota does. who knows if these ideas would scale up to the massive scale required to power our economy, let alone the world generally? i know i don’t.

    we both write very long replies which contain many points, so i am going to stop now without trying to tackle your many points individually.

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