If Corporations Are People, What Kind Are They?

In 2010, the Supreme Court decision, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, gave corporations some of the same free speech protections as people.

The decision teetered on the question of whether corporations were protected under the First Amendment to express their freedom of speech through contributions to state ballot initiatives. The court ruled in the favor of corporations, giving them the freedom to spend as much money on political contributions as they wanted.

Campaign finance reform advocates were appalled. Businesses swooned. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have been making comedy skits about it ever since.

But, it was Bloomberg writer, Justin Fox, who asked the most interesting question about what this decision meant.

He noted that the purpose of corporations, based on Milton Friedman’s definition, is singly focused on increasing profits. Family, friends, values, social conscience…irrelevant.

So if corporations are people, what kind would they be?

“If corporations are persons, they are — if they behave as Milton Friedman wanted them to — persons with mental and emotional impairments so severe that any decent judge would feel entirely justified in declaring them incompetent,” was his response.

He notes that any individual who behaved as corporations do, would be deemed psychopathic.

Yet these are the “people” who often play the most decisive role in who wins elections.

Worse, these are the “people” who set the rules by which they play (once their preferred candidate is installed in office).

It sounds like a science fiction movie. But it is real. And it is affecting how elections play out today.

Jon Stewart joked about corporations not being people because they have an inability to love and lack awareness of their own mortality.

But last I checked every philosopher from Socrates to Kant would argue the same thing.

Corporations are good at making profits (at least some are). Let them stick to that.