Return to Personhood Index


E C O F I L E S ©

Economics - File 3

[ oikonomia: household management; 'thrifty' ]


Corporate Personhood:

How did corporations come to possess so much power? Why do they have governments in their pockets? I'm not sure this can be answered without going into the depths of cultural psychology, but there are some strange historical preliminaries that help in understanding the corporate rise to power. Here's the story as I understand it.

In the old colonial days the law connected political rights and the vote to property rather than to the person. Initially America had invested power in the hands of personhood, rather than propertyhood. But the astoundingly weird 1886 U.S. Supreme court decision made corporations honorary persons - even though they are created by government and claimed by its shareholders as property.

The Supreme Court (or one of its judges - Morrison Remick Waite) thereby rewrote the Constitution of the United States, without argument and public debate. The summary of the Court's decision: "The defendant Corporations are persons within the intent of the clause in section 1 of the Fourteen [sic] Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." This Short assertion by a single judge elevated corporations to the status of persons under the law, and set the stage for the rise of corporate rule in the United States, changing the course of history.

[ Based on Korten, pp.185-186]

But lets just look at this sleight of hand. The corporation is owned by its shareholders, and is therefore property. If it is also a legal person, then it is a person owned by others in a condition of slavery - which is explicitly forbidden by the 13 th. Amendment to the Constitution. So either the corporation is illegally held in servitude by the shareholders, or the corporations rights of personhood prevent the shareholders from claiming ownership. The situation is a legal contradiction that the courts have deliberately refused to acknowledge.

As if this is not weird enough, how can a corporation claim to be a person? It is a legal fiction. Persons cannot be created by legal fiat (even if they can be eliminated by it). People are born of parents, develop, age and die. They evolve and develop in intimate relationship to an ecosytem. Corporations are not born, but enjoy unlimited duration at severe cost to other forms of life. They also happen to control the mass media, and thereby can determine who has the freedom to say what. Citizen free speech is thereby severely curtailed. Unlike a person they bear no accountability for corporate misdeeds or liability. They also have no limit on financial resources and property, building what ever they want, where ever they want, for they determine the laws of economic growth.

They can bring liability suits against private citizens, civic organizations, even nations; make financial contributions to political parties who favor their agendas and deduct them as business expenses (as they do also for their fines for environmental infringements). They withhold damaging information from the public and advertise harmful products in the name of free speech. A community or society possesses no such rights, even though it be a people, bound by blood, ancient traditions, and cultural values. Corporations by comparison are contrived. They exist to sell products and make money. They trample human rights and refer to people as "consumers". But in reality they have no more personhood than a slot machine or a Ponzi scheme.

Kent Ashton Walton: 11.1999

Copyright © 1999 - 2000 Ecofiles
Ecofiles, P.O. Box 14, Main Street, Chelsea, MI 48118-9998 (USA)