When should corporations be treated as people?

I recently attended a conference on business ethics, and one of the presenters asked what human rights corporations had. When some scoffed at the notions that a corporation could have any human rights at all, the presenter asked whether corporations did not have the right to buy property. Indeed, the earliest laws regarding corporations dealt with just such problems.

Lawyer Christopher Stone described some of the history of corporations in his 1976 book, Where the Law Ends: The Social Control of Corporate Behavior. The earliest corporations arose from the need of some organization, such as the church, to own property. It did not make sense to say that the abbot owned the property, could buy or sell it, and pass it on to his heirs. Rather, the property belonged to the church, and the congregants were responsible for it. When the abbot died, the church would still control the property.

And property was the primary function of the early proto-corporations. As you may know, some people, especially libertarians, assert that all human rights are property rights (see Murray Rothbard). If all human rights are, indeed, reducible to property rights, then the corporations, having the right to hold property, also are entitled to all the rights any human might reasonably demand. This is what free-market thinkers mean when they say corporations are people without the slightest pause.

The earliest commercial corporations were entities such as trade guilds. Although these guilds operated as one organization, when harm was done, individuals, not the guild, were held responsible. If you got bad meat from a butcher, you would blame the butcher, not the butcher’s guild. Stone points out that this system had its own drawbacks. It may be that a guild created a culture or corruption or failed to create a culture of safety. In this case, you may want to hold the corporation responsible rather than seeking out individuals.

You may demand that the corporation lose its charter, which was once the threat the public had against corporations. To withdraw a business charter would be the death penalty for a business. If such things still happened, perhaps we could better handle the equation of corporate rights with human rights, although it still does not sound right. But just imagine how life would be different if corporations could effectively be sentenced to death for wrongdoing. Well, they can, but it will take a great deal of political will to reinstate the death penalty for corporations.

Camus on Wall Street

As a young man, angry as I was, Albert Camus spoke to me. Many described him as an existentialist who focused on the absurdity of life, which was true, but I think it missed the point. At the very least, it missed the main point I took away from his work. After going through some periods of despair, I found “The Myth of Sisyphus” to be uplifting and inspiring. Camus offered the surprising revelation that Sisyphus could be happy. Actually, Camus said we must imagine Sisyphus happy. If Sisyphus is happy, surely anyone can be.

But Camus does not tell us to choose to be happy in spite of our circumstances. He does not tell us to turn inward in a meditative trance to achieve happiness. He does not tell us to live in the moment. No, it is a defiant spirit that keeps Sisyphus happy. Sisyphus has the misfortune of not only having a dreary existence but also of being all too aware of it.

Many people appear to go through life without ever realizing they are living a pointless and dreary existence that would be torture if they thought about it for one second, but they do not think about it. Or they try not to, but Sisyphus does think about it. Camus says, “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” It is scorn for his masters that gets him through the day. Even if he cannot change the situation, his hatred for his masters is a victory over them.

So some of us continually rail against the state of the world, and we are counseled to accept our reality, count our blessings for what we do have, be productive, and live in the moment. Our rage, we are told, prevents us from being happy, but I think our rage, our scorn, our repudiation of injustice is what sustains us and gives us meaning. It gives us happiness.

Our scorn and anger sustain us because they declare that we are something of worth, even if we are worthy only to ourselves. In The Rebel, Camus says, “In every act of rebellion, the rebel simultaneously experiences a feeling of revulsion at the infringement of his rights and a complete and spontaneous loyalty to himself.” Rather than being a negative, rebellion is a positive expression of one’s humanity. To do otherwise is despair, which is silent. Camus says, “To remain silent is to give the impression that one has no opinions, that one wants nothing, and in certain cases it really amounts to wanting nothing.”

Bewildered pundits, reporters, political observers, and sedated citizens ask what the protesters on Wall Street hope to accomplish. They have already accomplished something important. They have said, “no.” They have begun to live. They have chosen to want something.

Brooks and the Milquetoast Revolution

In today’s New York Times column, David Brooks mocks the Occupy Wall Street protesters for offering only mild and ineffective solutions to the country’s problems, rather than radical changes that would significantly alter the American system. It’s funny, but I haven’t seen or heard any OWS protesters claiming to be radicals or to want to overthrow the American system. Rather, I have seen people who love their country and want to let their leaders know they are not expendable. This should not be radical; in fact, no one should ever have to assert this position. We should assume all Americans are of value and that repairing our nation will require shared sacrifice.

He says, “They will have no realistic proposal to reduce the debt or sustain the welfare state. Even if you tax away 50 percent of the income of those making between $1 million and $10 million, you only reduce the national debt by 1 percent, according to the Tax Foundation.” I happen to think that removing the Bush-era tax cuts, ending corporate subsidies for corporations making huge profits, and closing tax loopholes that enable rich individuals and corporations to pay taxes at an exceptionally low rate or not at all, you will have an impact on the national debt.

But what if I am wrong? I am a humanist and not an economist, after all. I don’t have the solutions for the economic problems of the country, but I do feel that everyone should be subject to the same laws, same punishments, and same regard. After the financial collapse in 2008, we were told that banks were too big to fail and that we must rescue them. Taxpayers bailed out the banks only to see them become even larger through mergers and continue the same dangerous behaviors that caused the economic failure in the first place. We rescued them, rewarded their bad behavior, and are now being treated as if our voices do not matter.

If the banks are too big to fail, and the government won’t break them up, we must make them smaller ourselves by moving our money to credit unions and smaller banks. We must hold corporations accountable for their crimes. We must ask them to pay their share of rebuilding our country. Mr. Brooks is correct; this is not radical. He may also be correct that it will not solve all the financial problems of the United States, but it will be fair.

It is more important for me to live in a fair and just society than it is to live in a prosperous society. We should not need a revolution to achieve this.

Occupy Wall Street

For more than 30 years, I have mourned my country’s decline. When it comes to generating capital, the United States remains a leader, creating wealth at unprecedented rates. This meteoric rise in wealth, however, is accompanied by equally steep increases in indifference, poverty, and environmental degradation. Anyone who expresses concern or even sadness is mocked and rebuked. In an Orwellian turn, “compassion” is now “hating America.” Concern for declines in education and employment is now “liberal fascism.” As a nation, we have forgotten our humanity.

Like many in this country, I had given over to despair and resignation. Corporations are allowed to fund our elections as well as write and enforce our legislation. How can one resist a power that comprises the global economy and the governments of the developed world? Perhaps, it is still not possible, but the Occupy Wall Street protesters have sent one clear message: “By virtue of being a human being, you deserve a modicum of respect.” This belief, that people do matter, is common to every religion known to me. It is also common to every philosophical approach to ethics and morality that I can name. Even Ayn Rand’s exhortation to “selfishness” recognizes the demand that no one has a right to trample the needs of others. To pursue your own happiness entails concern for promoting good relations with others.

America has become a nation of talking points and PowerPoint lectures. When people ask what the protesters want, specifically, they are really demanding a “study sheet” for a humanistic movement. What do the protesters demand first? That humanity be recognized as something of concern. People must be treated as persons, first and foremost. From this assumption, policy decisions will flow. No simple solution exists, so no one can articulate it. Life is complex. Economies are complex. Legislation is complex.

If we can once again affirm the value of our humanity, however, we will live in a better, if imperfect, world.