Corporate personhood is an oxymoron

Should corporations be considered persons? Is personhood the same as citizenship? And is money a legitimate form of free speech? 

These are the questions I’ve been asking myself since reading the news of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Thursday that corporations and unions are persons with free speech rights, therefore permitted to contribute as much money as they want to political campaigns.

Admittedly, I’m far from an expert on the judiciary or the laws involved, but I am a private citizen who is very wary of corporatism and its effects. This sends up major red flags for me.

Many Republicans have hailed this as a victory for free speech. And still others think this is no big deal because it’s risky for corporations to back political campaigns so they’ll have to think good and hard before stepping into the political arena. I’m not sure the same can be said about unions, by the way, but is this even the point?

I thought it was citizenship that guaranteed freedom of speech, not personhood. And the notion of a corporation being a “person” — especially when some human beings are not even considered persons – seems ludicrous. 

Joe Hargave, an occasional reader here at IC who blogs at The American Catholic recently pointed this out as well

The decision of the Blackmum court in Roe v. Wade made airily stupid evasions about society’s inability to agree on what counts as personhood for a human being. In that immortal decision, the following words were written:

We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.

When was the consensus among doctors, philosophers, and theologians reached on the personhood of an abstract, non-human, non-living legal construct!?


When indeed? 

Corporate personhood may not be a big issue when speaking of a small, U.S.-based entity. But what about in an age of multi-nationals, whose ownership and management goes well beyond national borders?

For subsidiarity to be possible, laws must limit corporate power. An individual simply can not compete with global corporations — the two voices don’t enjoy an equal playing field.

Glenn Greenwald at Salon is skeptical, however, that this will subvert our democracy:

…My skepticism is due to one principal fact:  I really don’t see how things can get much worse in that regard.  The reality is that our political institutions are already completely beholden to and controlled by large corporate interests…


His comments on this are worth a read.  

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens had some tongue-in-cheek comments for the majority when he wrote his opinion Thursday on the case at the center of this latest ruling:

“Under the majority’s view, I suppose it may be a First Amendment problem that corporations are not permitted to vote, given that voting is, among other things, a form of speech.”  

Brian Saint-Paul

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Brian Saint-Paul is the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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