Are Corporations People?

Tibor R. Machan

Much fussing is in evidence from certain circles–some heavy hitters, like Professor Ronald Dworkin–about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that protects corporations against government intervention when they make political contributions. The common complaint appears to be that corporations are not, after all, people.

When I run across this I always run through a thought experiment or two. I think of a corporation and ask myself, what am I thinking of. Do I think of buildings? Trucks? Limos? Parking lots? The plants that adorn the entry ways to the buildings where the corporation is housed?

None of the above, I conclude. It is people, that’s who. They are the ones I am thinking of, a bunch of human beings engaged in various activities, mostly in offices, sometimes in mail or conference rooms. And I think what else is familiar to me that fits this analysis? Well, universities, colleges, orchestras, choirs, sororities, fraternities, families, and the like–they are all made up of people and without the people they wouldn’t be what they are. Yet they can all act in unison, as well, as “one body,” so to speak, provided those who belong to them see eye to eye.

So then why all the fuss about the court’s ruling that acknowledges that business and other corporations are indeed people? Well, probably because many of the people who make up corporations disagree with the politics of those who deny them their humanity, the folks who keep insisting that corporations are something impersonal and heartless. One way to demean such folks is to write them off as something other than human beings–big faceless entities of some kind, yet with consciousness and the capacity to make good and bad choices and also capable of being sued in a court of law.

The bottom line seems clearly to be that those who make up a business corporation are people engaged in profit making endeavors, something that many folks around the country and the globe deem to be unseemly. In the Soviet Union these people were considered profiteers and accordingly taken to be criminals, given that the USSR was committed to the Marxist communist ideal that wealth may not be pursued by individuals but must be shared among all. Not that most Soviet citizens bought into this but the official ideology adhered to the idea.

What business corporations are, by my common sense understanding, is organizations established by a bunch of human beings for the purpose of conducting commerce and reaping economic benefits from this. The organization usually employs some managers and the like who are responsible to guide it toward economic success. If they fail, they are usually let go but if they succeed, they often get very well paid–after all, they helped a lot of people, shareholders and stockholders, to reap profits.

So what is the fuss all about? Why is a symphony orchestra accepted as comprised of human beings but not a business corporation? Well, I think maybe it is the widespread prejudice among intellectuals against wealth care. This is why public enterprises like PBS, NPR and most educational institutions are deemed by them holier than all get out but private enterprises are besmirched routinely. As if those involved in public undertakings were all morally superior, while those seeking profit must all be cads.

But as public choice theory has so well demonstrated, those standing up for the public interest are by no means without the temptation to pursue their own agendas instead of the public interest, something that hardly anyone knows enough about to actually serve conscientiously.

Let’s stop this business bashing that is, especially now, so damaging to society, what with everyone needing business to forge ahead and succeed so that we can all make a decent living from the employment their profit pursuits make possible. It is utterly bizarre that this kind of an attitude toward business corporations can be in place when those corporations are so necessary for us all to recover economic well being.

So the answer to the question about corporations being people or not is that they definitely are although they may not be the sort of people the critics admire or want to have around much of the time.