How corporations won their civil rights

When you stop and think about it, it is perfectly obvious that a corporation is not the same thing as an individual.  A corporation is an organizational structure within which individual human beings operate.

But in American law corporations have the same Constitutional rights as flesh-and-blood human beings.  The video shows the court decisions that brought this about.

One of the most significant ones was Ford Motor Co. vs. Dodge in 1919, in two minority investors appealed a decision by Henry Ford to cease paying dividends and instead invest the company’s surplus money in building new factories and expanding employment.  Ford claimed he was doing this for the public good, but the Michigan Supreme Court ordered him to pay the dividend because his obligation was to shareholders, not to employees or the community.

Another important decision was Pennsylvania Coal Co. vs. Mahon in 1922, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court.  In that decision, the court rules that a law or regulation that diminishes the value of land can be a “taking” of land without just compensation contrary to the Constitution.

This principle is embodied in international trade treaties, such as the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreements. Under these treaties, corporations, but not labor or community organizations, are allowed to ask an international tribunal for compensation which national laws unjustly deprive them of expected profits.  The fictitious legal entity has more rights, not just the same rights, as individual humans.


Now, the corporate form of organization is useful.  It enables people to pool their resources and do collectively what they could not do individually.  The principle of limited liability enables people to invest in ventures without risking anything more than they put in.  If this possibility did not exist, American business people would be less enterprising.  Imagine being a General Motors stockholder when it went bankrupt, and being obligated to pay your share of GM’s debts!

The trouble with the corporate form of organization is that it enables individuals to avoid responsibility for their actions and hide behind the corporate structure.  When a corporation is fined for wrong-doing, management may punish low-level employees if they’re still around, but they won’t hold themselves responsible.

Corporate personhood as a metaphor gets in the way of clear thinking.  Corporate personhood as a legal doctrine gets in the way of democracy.  I am in favor of a Constitutional amendment that states that fictitious entities do not have human rights.

We can prosecute corporate managers who break laws, and jail them if convicted.  Fining fictitious legal entities is not a deterrent if individual lawbreakers go free.  But this may be negated if the TPP, TTIP and similar treaties are ratified.  These would give corporations rights that are beyond the reach of U.S. law.


We the People, Not We the Corporations | Move to Amend, the web site of advocates of a Constitutional amendment to repeal corporate personhood.

Dodge v. Ford Motor Co. from Wikipedia.

Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon from Wikipedia.

Trans-Pacific Partnership: “We Will Not Obey”; Building a Global Resistance Movement by Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers for TruthOut.

This transatlantic trade deal is a full-frontal assault on democracy by George Monbriot for The Guardian.

Invaders from Mars by SF writer Charles Stross.   He wrote that corporations are not persons, but are rather hive entities driven by an instinct to grow and take in nourishment regardless of human consequences.   “We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals.”



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