Corporations should not be considered legal persons

March 16, 2018

The debate over whether or not corporations should be considered legal persons has sustained longevity in the legal sphere. While some believe it is within the rights of corporations to be offered the same rights and protections as any legal person, others believe corporations should not have this power. As a result, many philosophers, lawmakers and political theorists are scratching their heads as to what its implications truly are for the tenets of law that governs America.

My main concern with the legal personification of corporations is that persons have the power to donate to politicians and their campaigns, and therefore so would corporations. In “Corporations open up about political spending,” New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter argues that people who worry about how much money is being funnelled into the government should not be setting their sights on “corporate personhood,” but rather the demographic of rich and ideologically-firm donors to political campaigns. However, these wealthy individual donors are not as worrying to me as corporations.

First, corporations oftentimes use money that is not necessarily theirs. With large corporations, there might be countless investors, each with a stake in the company’s worth. If a corporation makes a political move, it should have the support of every investor, which in many cases is impossible to get. More important, however, is the responsibility that corporate personhood puts on the consumer.

When I buy a box of chocolates from the supermarket, I should not need to worry about whether or not I am supporting the chocolate company’s political agenda. It puts another level of worry on the consumer as she must now navigate the market, supporting corporations that align with her political beliefs while entertaining the regular shopping considerations like cost and utility.

Consumers might be doing this regardless of whether or not corporations achieve legal personhood. Wealthy, ideologically firm donors are the backbone of many corporations. And if the consumer buys a product from one of the companies of which that donor is an owner or investor, she is indirectly supporting the political moves that the owner of the company makes. This, in my eyes, is a different problem. The rich and ideologically firm company owner has used her assets to donate to a political campaign. However, when she donates, she does it as herself and does not represent any other group of individuals that might condone being represented in such a decision.

Owning a commodity is ultimately a political act. If companies are able to fund certain politicians, the line separating the political and economic spheres bursts. But the potential for problems seeps farther into the economic sphere than the general populous might understand.

Other than economic ramifications, there are more abstract worries that come with corporations being deemed legal persons. There is now a precedent for defining something that is not an individual as a legal person. This creates potential for many more non-person entities to become legal persons. It’s possible religious groups or families could have the potential of becoming legal persons if groups of people are allowed such a status.

This might seem like a faulty slippery slope argument, but some groups are already attempting to obtain legal personhood. In the documentary, “Unlocking the Cage,” a lawyer from an animal rights organization argued in front of the Supreme Court that chimpanzees should be deemed legal persons, based on the loose definition of the term used by corporations. If chimpanzees are allowed that status, it would be illegal to lock them in cages because of habeas corpus. These are the kinds of changes that are now possible due to the fact that corporations are deemed as legal persons. While some of these changes might arguably turn out positive, we are not ready as a society to grant that power of legal personhood to entities that are not people.

Corporations’ legal person status is one of the more peculiar decisions in U.S. law, but its implications warrant concern. Corporate personhood allows for a blurring of the political and economic spheres that is unfair to consumers and investors and creates precedent for disturbing legal changes.

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