According to American law, and the law in a lot of the rest of the world, corporations are persons–fictional persons, or corporate persons, or something like that. There must be two sides to this issue. But I can only see one. This is a really stupid idea. Corporations are not persons. Groups of persons in general are not persons. It's almost always a bad idea to call something by a name that doesn't deserve. By calling corporations persons, we seem to let a lot lame brains, including a majority of the Supreme Court, to think that they are persons. Corporations as persons is a dumb idea, that should be flushed down the toilet of history.
Well, I suppose that doesn’t sound very philosophical. It sounds extreme. Groups of people, and corporations too, can do a number of things that people do. They can make promises, tell lies, incur debt, and the like. Perhaps the concept of corporations and other collections of human beings as fictional persons simply recognizes that fact. Groups of people were issuing statements, true and untrue, buying and renting buildings, going into debt, and stuff like that long before the law or Supreme Court came into it. At some point it seemed like a good idea, one that would encourage innovation and risk-taking, pooling of capital, and other things that increase economic activity, to create a special kind of association, a corporation, that shielded the participants from some of the liabilities and risks. With the rise of corporations in the 19th and 20th centuries, it seemed like a good idea to get clear about the extent to which corporations should and should not be treated like persons. Hence the concept of a fictional person, as an unfortunate way of posing the question..
I’m willing to admit that corporations may be a good idea. Some corporations have been very very good to me. Stanford for example. And KALW, and Ben Manilla Productions. Perhaps none of these institutions would exist if it were not for the protection offered by corporations.
But is there any reason to abuse language and confuse concepts in order to keep track of these facts? To keep track of a few similarities between groups and corprorations, and real, live, breathing, humans --- the sorts of things that are real persons? We just need to say that groups of people and corporations can make statements, incur debts, sue and get sued and whatever other things we think it is a good idea for them to be able to do. As soon as we call them persons, we create the default assumption that they should be treated exactly like persons. The language already in the law, and in the Constitution–a document written long before corporations were of much importance–that uses the word “person” is assumed to be applicable to these nonpersons. That puts the burden of argument in the wrong place, and, to my mind, somewhat demeans real persons.
Given that corporations exist and can do many of the things that persons can do, and that their existence seems to provide is a practical advantage that our country and most countries have wanted to incorporate into the legal structure, then we need to make certain decisions. Then the question arises, in what ways should they be treated like persons and in what ways should they not be treated like persons? For example, should we put special restrictions on the speech of corporations? But we don’t need to pretend that corporations are persons of one sort or another to ask and deliberate about these questions.
What has happened here in America, as I understand it, is basically this. Various states have tried to make laws to the effect, say, that corporations are legally not allowed to tell lies in the same way that ordinary people are, and may be sued for doing so in ways that ordinary people couldn’t be. Then the Supreme Court says, “oh no , you can’t do that, the 14th amendment says all persons within each state must have the same rights.” So an amendment, created as part of ending slavery, is abused to prevent the individual states from making reasonable differentiations between the rights of people–real people–and the ways we wish to allow corporations to behave –it seems misleading to me even call them rights.
There must be a better way.