There are lots of ways that corporations threaten democracy. But they’re all, I think, rooted in one basic concept -- the idea of limited liability. That’s the concept that the individuals behind a corporation can shield themselves from full financial responsibility for risks they take. The thinking is, if people can protect themselves from full liability, they’ll be willing to take greater risks and try new things. Limited liability encourages creativity and innovation. But limited liability is a double-edged sword.
What is it
The US prides itself on the strength of its democratic institutions and considers itself a leader in the promotion of democratic values around the globe. But can we consistently maintain this self-image in the face of the growing power of corporations? Are capitalism and globalization subverting the interests of democracy at home and abroad? If so, does the problem stem from fundamental inconsistencies between global capitalism and national democracy? Can regulations provide a solution, and if so, who has the authority to create and enforce these regulations? John and Ken welcome former US Senator Russell Feingold, author of While America Sleeps: A Wake-up Call for the Post-9/11 Era, for a program recorded live on the Stanford campus.
In this week’s show Ken and John don their black suits, roll-up their tinted windows, and get down to business. Their agenda? Corporations. The stakes? Democracy. Joining them is former US Senator and author of While America Sleeps: A Wake-up Call for the Post-9/11 Era, Russell Feingold. Together they seek to find out just what implications the modern corporation has for democracy.
So what are corporations? Ken and John assert that they are bodies predicated on something called “limited liability”—a system that allows its members to bear fewer responsibilities for their actions on behalf of the corporation, enabling them to take greater risks. This would be a satisfactory system, they argue, if it were not for the fact that under US law corporations are considered to be persons. For it means that, if corporations are ‘people,’ they are very irresponsible people, as limited liability mandates that they have significantly fewer legal and social obligations.
For former Senator Russell Feingold, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Alluding to the Citizens United decision of 2010, in which the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill was controversially struck down, he warns us of the dangers corporations pose to our democracy. People, he says, should be the only ones who can affect the political process. Corporations skew politics and give an inordinate amount of power to an entity that neither feels for people nor is capable of doing so. Whilst not advocating a complete removal of the corporate form, Feingold stresses the need to reexamine it in detail in order to preserve our democracy.
Is he right? Will corporations destroy our democracy? Have they already? Find out this and more, including two original songs by our own Sixty-Second Philosopher, in this week’s exciting show.
Roving Philosophical Report: Caitlin explores the dirty world of global oil and the murky and morally dubious past of Royal Dutch Petroleum in Nigeria. If corporations are persons, she asks, should they not share the same level of civic responsibility as the rest of us? She is joined by Peter Weiss, a prominent human rights lawyer, who believes that they should.
- Sixty Second Philosopher: Putting his mouth where his money is, our intrepid philosopher-on-the-go takes on the Cato institute, English Liberalism, and the dreaded “Kochtopus.” Will he survive?