“…That government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19th, 1863)”
“I hope we shall…crush in its birth the aristocracy of the moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country (Thomas Jefferson, 1816)(1).”
Our democracy is founded on the belief that the rights of individuals are the cornerstone of the political system. The government’s responsibility is to safeguard those rights, which are clearly defined in the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. On December 15th, 1791, the United States congress ratified the Bill of Rights which guarantees among other freedoms, the freedom of speech.
Until last week, the right to freedom of speech guaranteed by our Constitution was limited to flesh and blood people, but in a landmark ruling by the Roberts’ Supreme Court, corporate entities, by virtue of their “corporate personhood,” are now also entitled to express their views without restriction. For all practical and legal purposes, inanimate corporations are “people” under the law.
Many differences between corporations and the average American citizen, apart from the obvious biology, make the Court’s recent ruling disastrous for our democracy. While human individuals are limited by law to a maximum campaign contribution of $2,300 to any political candidate, corporations are able to funnel millions into campaigns through various legal loopholes that allow them to make contributions on behalf of their employees and shareholders. Corporations also have the resources available to spend on buying candidates that the average citizen lacks. Of the top 100 economies in the world, 53 are corporations. Exxon’s economy is larger than that of 180 sovereign nations (2). The Supreme Court’s ruling opens the door for corporate interests to pour their limitless funds into the electoral process in order to influence elections.
Why should we fear some of the most powerful entities on earth interfering with our election process? Corporations have a legal mandate to pursue self interest in the form of profits. They have no such mandate to behave morally or ethically. In modern psychology, a sociopath is described as a person who lacks empathy and has no concern for the negative impacts of his actions on others. A sociopath regards his own self interest as paramount and will stop at nothing to further his own agenda(3). According to this clinical definition, corporations are legally bound to act as sociopaths.
Corporations go out of their way to avoid the cost of cleaning up their environmental and social messes. By lobbying Congress to reduce or remove regulation, they are able to avoid these costs and refer to them as “externalities.” Corporations also enjoy “limited liability,” meaning shareholders are not legally liable for the actions of the corporation and cannot be sued or fined for any corporate actions that may cause harm to others. The corporation has thus evolved into an entity that goes to great steps to avoid responsibility for its harmful actions. When harm does take place, those who profit from the corporation’s predatory behavior (i.e. the shareholders) are not held accountable. Corporate sociopaths now have the right to invest in our electoral process with impunity. Furthermore, due to corporate secrecy laws and jurisdictional loopholes any corporation can take part in the process including corporate entities from other countries. Saudi Arabian oil interests, Chinese industrialists and even corporations with ties to terrorist groups are now all granted the right to speak freely and weigh in on US elections. The only limitation will be the size of their purse strings.
The Bill of Rights and the Constitution of the United States were written to protect the rights of flesh and blood individuals and do not even mention corporations. Indeed, these foundations of our democracy never intended to extend personhood to non-human entities; nevertheless, in the 1886 Supreme Court Case Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad, a court reporter incorrectly recorded a comment made by one of the justices declaring that Southern Pacific Railroad was entitled to the protection of the 14th Amendment, and this judicial mistake has been used ever since as legal justification for the seemingly oxymoronic precedent of corporate personhood.
Since the 1886 debacle, Congress and the Supreme Court have swayed back and forth over the legal rights of corporations. During a particularly dark period known as the “Lochner Era,” the Supreme Court extended human rights to corporations with abandon. Eventually the Great Depression (4) threw light on the dangers of allowing unrestricted privileges to corporations and many of the Lochner Era rulings were overturned.
The Tillman Act of 1907 banned corporations from making campaign contributions (5), and for the past 100 years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld this legislation, recognizing that the interference of powerful entities such as corporations in the electoral process is contradictory to democratic rule.
Ironically, Justices Alito and Roberts both swore at their confirmation hearings that they were strict Constitutionalists and the both adamantly advocated against “legislating from the bench.” Now, without legal precedent, these same right wing judges have determined that corporate entities can make unlimited and unrestricted campaign contributions, as to infringe upon this right would be to deny the corporations’ right to freedom of speech as per the United States Constitution.
Our nation was founded on the belief that all persons are created equally, and that no one person should have more influence over the legislative process than any other. Our brave forefathers risked their livelihoods and lives to create this great democracy, and with one fell swoop, the Roberts’ Supreme Court has just undone the revolution. Once again, the legislative process will be determined by those with the largest bank accounts. Instead of monarchs, we now have corporations.
References and Recommended Resources
2- Speth, James Gustave, 2009. The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.
6- (Just for Fun) The Colbert Report at http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/249055/september-15-2009/the-word---let-freedom-ka-ching
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