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.

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