Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Natural rights for unnatural beings?

One area of increasing interest for me is the idea of corporate personhood. This is the idea that a legal corporation, recognized as its own entity under the law, has the same (or similar) rights as natural persons under the Constitution. Put another way, do corporate entities have natural (or human) rights?

What’s not to like about this issue? It combines law, politics, justice, metaphysics, and artificial “people.” Because when you stop to think of it, if corporations are people than corporate formation is actually a weird form of reproduction. (What does that do to the marriage debate?) Although sometimes I suspect that the Horcrux is an even better analogy--a splintering of the soul into an immortal artifact so that one's name can live on after one dies.

But I digress. The Supreme Court first recognized corporations as persons protected by the 14th Amendment in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific (1886), and is in the news again after the Citizens United case where the Court determined that the campaign finance laws improperly infringed on a corporation’s free speech protected by the First Amendment.

John Medaille at Front Porch Republic gives some more background:

The Founding Fathers of our Republic were very suspicious of corporations, since the royally-chartered companies had been used as instruments of oppression against the colonies. The Navigation Acts, for example, gave them exclusive shipping rights to the colonies, much to the detriment of American entrepreneurs. And it was East India Company tea that the colonists used to color the waters of Boston harbor in the original tea party. For a jurisprudence that pretends to be interested in “original intent,” the colonial attitude towards corporate power cannot be overlooked.

Corporations prior to Santa Clara were creatures of the state that had no “rights” save those that were granted by their charters, charters that always excluded their participation in politics. Santa Clara extended the protections of the 14th Amendment (no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”) to the corporations. The Amendment was originally designed to protect the freed slaves, but since Santa Clara it has been used mainly as a tool to protect big business.

And Mark Mitchell also weighed in.

But corporations are not persons. They are not alive. They are not even dead. They do not have natural life spans. They are not mortal creatures whose essential mortality induces reflection on the ultimate meaning of life and leads the wise to live out that brief existence with an eye to what matters most. A corporation never dies a natural death and therefore lacks the natural incentive to live a life that includes dying well. An immortal person is a god. By calling a corporation a person (whose charter is for perpetuity) have we created a strange new god? A new idol before which we prostrate ourselves? The corporation, rightly conceived, is to serve human beings. Corporate personhood has the effect of  blurring this goal and reversing the relationship.

All this is significant because of the recent introduction of the People’s Rights Amendment, which would amend the Constitution to clarify that only natural persons, and not corporate persons, have protected rights under the Constitution.

The political right is up in arms, decrying government takeover. The National Review has called it a repeal of the First Amendment.

But in a letter to the National Review, the amendment's supporters address many of the concerns and misconceptions about what it would do and would not do.

The Constitution protects certain individual rights that are vital to safeguarding our free society. Only our most sacred rights are enshrined in the Constitution, and thereby afforded the unique authority of that document.

Many other rights also exist, conferred by statute or by case law or common law. These rights are properly subject to legislation, and lack the unique protection of the Constitution.

Corporate law, appropriately, is in this latter category. Corporations are artificial entities, created by people. In order to accomplish important economic goals, we the people grant charters to corporations, conferring various legal rights, including the ability to enter into contracts, and great privileges, such as limited liability and perpetual life.

These corporate rights and privileges are properly guaranteed by law, but are not so sacred as to be protected by the Constitution, because corporations are not people. This critical distinction — between constitutional rights that properly belong only to people, and other, subordinate legal rights that legitimately extend to corporations — is the crux of the People’s Rights Amendment.

Now while I’m not convinced that this amendment, or a constitutional amendment at all, is the proper solution to the issue of granting natural rights to corporations, I do think that the distinction between natural persons and artificial persons should be somehow reintroduced back into our legal structure. I fear that raising up corporate entities to the level of humanity may also actually undermine the natural rights doctrine. If corporate “rights” and natural rights rise and fall together, they’re more likely to fall. And we, the people who the Constitution is designed to protect, actually lose rights in the process.

As a final thought, corporations as originally designed were granted limited powers. The same is true of our federal government. However, they have since evolved to holding plenary powers (and even “rights”); and our conception of government followed suit. Limited and strictly defined powers disappeared from corporate law before disappearing from constitutional law. I think that’s significant.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...