© Josh Sager
“Corporations are people, my friend.”
The entire idea of corporate personhood is an intensely controversial issue and one that has had huge consequences in all areas of American politics. Some would imbue corporations with the rights of individuals, including the extremely important right to free speech (and thus spend money in elections)—unfortunately, five of our Supreme Court Justices are found within this group, thus the law reflects this minority opinion.
Over the last century, a combination of several Supreme Court cases—starting with Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, which set the precedent that corporations have some rights under the 14th Amendment—have led to corporations being given de-facto personhood.
The progression towards corporate personhood brings up a very interesting and relevant point: If we are to consider corporations to be people, what kind of person are they? Are they philanthropic and kind to their neighbors or are they the kind of people who will slit your throat to take your wallet?
Unfortunately for all of us non-corporate persons, the very nature of the corporation is amoral and borderline sociopathic—they exist to make money, regardless of the social consequences—thus the corporate “person” is far closer to the cutthroat thief than Ned Flanders (the “good neighbor” parody from the Simpsons). To further compound this problem, corporations have legal protections from the consequences of their misdeeds that would make the average criminal ecstatic (ex. no possibility to be found guilty of murder).
Giving corporations personhood is the equivalent to letting thousands of sociopaths—possessing trillions of dollars in funding and an immunity from criminal prosecution—join society; expecting them not to victimize the weak is unrealistic but, as “people” they have the ability to influence politicians into ignoring their predation on the real people.
A corporation is a legal construct which grants a group of investors legal protections from liability and imbues their investment with a set of legal and tax statuses. Once incorporated, the corporation’s officers gain additional protection from criminal charges and the investors gain a level of protection form civil liability stemming from misdeeds of their creations.
The core purpose of the for-profit corporation is to make money and it is the fiduciary responsibility of its officers to make as much money as is possible within the law and market. As such, a corporation has no conscience or ethical obligation to do anything but exist within the law and make money—if it is legal, corporate officers have the responsibility to maximize profits, even if it involves outsourcing and underpaying workers.
The amorality of a corporation is by design but this does not necessarily make all for-profit corporations dangerous to individuals. Corporations respond to risk/reward scenarios in the way which will garner them to most profit, thus the government can prevent corporations from systematically victimizing people through passing limits on corporate action and attaching expensive consequences to violations.
In an ideal situation, the government balances corporations’ lack of conscience by making a set of strong and fair laws to constrain corporations and prevent them from exploiting workers and consumers—this is exactly how the government passes criminal laws in order to constrain sociopaths from victimizing their fellow citizens. Within this framework of laws, corporations produce and sell goods/services, making money for their workers and investors. Basically, the government becomes the conscience and limiting factor for corporate actions so that corporations can be amoral yet society is still protected.
The Corporate Sociopath
A sociopath is a person who has no conscience, sense of remorse, or ability to feel empathy with another human being. Oftentimes, they will victimize their fellow humans without a thought if it would benefit them (or just amuse them). Statistically speaking, sociopaths are attracted to positions of power—including politicians, doctors, and lawyers—and are not all criminals; that said, many violent criminals are, in some way, sociopathic.
A sociopath and a corporation have identical incentive structures and motivations:
- Both sociopaths and corporations exist for the sole purpose of self-centered goals—sociopaths want a variety of things (money, power, sex, etc.) while corporations are solely focused upon making money.
- Neither has an internal sense of morality and, barring intervention from a more powerful authority, both are willing to exploit others in service of their goal; just as how a sociopath may be willing to lie, cheat and steal their way through life, a corporation is willing to use child sweatshop labor to depress costs.
- Both sociopaths and corporations are constrained through risk/reward analysis—sociopaths weigh the value or pleasure of doing something immoral against the legal/social risks, while corporations weigh the profit of their actions against the cost of legal/social actions against their agenda.
Anybody who supports corporate personhood needs to be reminded that corporations may make money, but they will do anything to maximize their profits. As “people,” corporations gain the ability to influence the government with their trillions in profit, thus making it less costly/risky for them to violate your rights.
A corporate “person” is nothing less than an entity with the legal protections of a corporation and the moral compass of Hannibal Lecter—it may ignore you or even provide a service for the right price, but it may also decide to eat you one day if it is so inclined.
This is what a “corporate person” looks like before they have bought the government and bribed politicians into removing the things restricting them–you don’t want to be around when the restrictions come off.