Corporations as Persons: Steven Colbert explains this bad idea

by cv harquail on January 22, 2010

[Jan 21: In light of yesterday’s Supreme Court Decision, I’m re-posting this serious & pop-culture critique of the anti-democratic argument that Corporations Are People. Scott Klinger writing over at Alternet, sets out what it would/should mean for corporations really to be treated as “persons” and thus have the same responsibilities as people too. Me, I’d like these corporate persons to be held to the same contribution limits as the next person– so that I and Exxon would both be limited to $2,400 per candidate per election.]

If we were to list the top five or so Supreme (Court) mistakes of the last 200+ years, on that list would be the mistake in 1886 to treat a Justice’s unofficial remark about corporations’ hypothetical legal status as though it were part of the Court’s actual decision. This offhand suggestion that corporations could be considered ‘persons’ in the eyes of the law is a mistake that’s compounded over the years, to the point where it has fundamentally distorted democracy and capitalism as we “know” them.

The ThreatDown Generator.jpg

Okay, so now you know my feelings about the issue.

But did you know that Stephen Colbert feels the same way?

Check out this clip from a show earlier this week, where Colbert makes sense of a most unfunny perversion of civil rights.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word – Let Freedom Ka-Ching
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Health Care Protests

Corporations’ ‘Personhood’ is an inauthentic identity

The notion that corporations should have rights (but not responsibilities) as though they were actual human citizens has become so taken-for-granted as “the way things are” that it handicaps our ability to understand any for-profit organization’s authentic identity.

The ‘personhood’ that grants corporations the same rights to free speech and grants them even more political power than a human individual contradicts both our understanding of “person” and our understanding of “citizen”. It makes it hard for us to have a thoughtful discussion of how a for-profit corporation should participate in democracy. It distorts not only how we consider corporate cash contributions to political candidates and parties, but also how we think about corporate social responsibility and corporate citizenship.

Do you understand the ‘Corporations as persons’ logic?

There are many arguments for why corporations make bad “people” and even worse “citizens”. Chief among these is the difference between why people exists and why corporations exist. Consider this argument from the Attorney General, in this excerpt from the oral arguments to the Supreme Court, courtesy of the DailyKos,

JUSTICE STEVENS: One of the amicus briefs objects to — responds to Justice Kennedy’s problem by saying that the problem is we have got to contribute to both parties, and a lot of them do, don’t they?

SOLICITOR GENERAL KAGAN: A lot of them do, which is a suggestion about how corporations engage the political process and how corporations are different from individuals in this respect. You know, an individual can be the wealthiest person in the world but few of us — maybe some — but few of us are only our economic interests. We have beliefs, we have convictions; we have likes and dislikes. Corporations engage the political process in an entirely different way and this is what makes them so much more damaging.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, that’s not —I’m sorry, but that seems rather odd. A large corporation just like an individual has many diverse interests. A corporation may want to support a particular candidate, but they may be concerned just as you say about what their shareholders are going to think about that. They may be concerned that the shareholders would rather they spend their money doing something else. The idea that corporations are different than individuals in that respect, I just don’t think holds up.

GENERAL KAGAN: Well, all I was suggesting, Mr. Chief Justice, is that corporations have actually a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to increase value. That’s their single purpose, their goal.

If organizations exist to make money (aka increase shareholder value), then their concerns are ultimately far more narrow than the concerns of real people, real citizens, whose life goals and purpose are far more complex. More broadly, citizenship itself requires a concern for more than short-term profit. Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and even Alexander Hamilton all understood this too.

Defining Citizens & Citizenship: An Important Topic for Management Education

Whether you agree or disagree that corporations should be people, we should all be having a conversation about what it means to grant equal citizenship to corporations. Yes, many of us are focused on the organizational issues around the political conversation about Health Care reform, and thus may not be paying attention to Supreme Court rulings. Even so, we should also be educating ourselves about both sides of the argument about corporate personhood.

A conversation about the relationship between business, politics and society should be part of every MBA students education about business. Were I to redesign an MBA curriculum, or even teach again my class on “Books for Brave Managers”, this topic would be on our agenda.  One 90 minute class on this topic could teach future business & non-profit leaders how to think more deeply about the roles of organizations (for profit and not for profit) in our national and local civic lives.

200909181020.jpgAs we wait for MBA curricula to be redesigned to reflect the emerging needs of business and society, we can learn more about this topic ourselves. It may seem very abstract to ask questions like “What is an organization really?” “Should organizations be the legal equals of individual people?” “Is making corporations ‘persons’ the best way to have corporate (for profit) entities participate in democracy?”, but the implications of our explicit and implicit beliefs are quite real. Just consider What could Change if Corporate Personhood Were Abolished?

What about you: Do you think that more managers and leaders should understand the arguments for and against Corporate Personhood?
Originally posted September 18, 2009

Here are some resources to check out:

David Korten’s book ” When Corporations Rule The World”
Thom Hartmann’s book “Unequal Protection: The rise of corporate dominance and theft of human rights”.
The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom 200909181026.jpg


Chris MacDonald September 27, 2009 at 10:35 am


Do you know of any advanced economies that don’t treat corporations as persons?

The basic idea of treating corporations as persons isn’t just a quirk of American constitutional law. (The idea goes back hundreds of years in Europe.)

In reality, the question is not about whether to treat corporations as persons (if we didn’t, no investment in them would ever be safe, i.e., investment would be impossible). The question is about what *kind* of legal personhood they will have. Particular jurisdictions may make bad decisions about this, but that’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.


Justice Chiefly January 22, 2010 at 1:47 am

Yes. From their inception, they have been effective tools for the consolidation of power, and the exploitation of people across the globe. For centuries, they have enabled the monied class to get – even more money.

Investing? Fancy word for speculation, the evil cousin of usury. The profits so gained – free of the investor having to actually do the labor to make the money – is made of the backs of others.

It’s inherently immoral.

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