Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Personhood for Profit

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Personhood for Profit

Article excerpt

Seeing corporations as people, are we making ourselves over in their image?

ARE CORPORATIONS "persons"! Legally, they are. They have the right to own property. to enter into contracts, to sue for defamation. Thanks to Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, they also have "free speech" rights. Voting is the only right corporations lack-and the tsunami of political money unleashed by that Supreme Court decision makes that limit irrelevant.

"Person" is an imp9rtant word for Christianity. We speak of the three divine persons .of the Trinity, and of the human person made in the image of God What are we to make of "corporate personhood?» Its tempting to invQke idolatry and the golden calf of Exodus. However. corporate persons are akin more to the "golem" of Jewish folklore-a human creation that fulfills our immediate goals. but brings about unforeseen destructive consequences.

Mitt Romney's campaign gaffe "Corporations are people, my friend" points to the problem. He wasn't arguing that corporations are literal people, but that they are made up of people working together. But what matters is the nature of these shared projects: The corporation insulates its anonymous stockholders from liabUity and works solely to maximize the value of their investments.

Indeed, the "corporate person" is the perfect homo economicus. A human owner of a firm, no matter how hard-eyed, will stU! have moral qualms and live in a community that judges his or her cbaracte.r. In contrast, the corporate perso.n has no interior life. These abstract "persons" are served by trustees with the responsibility to do everything legally possible to maxi. mize profits. They may regret abandoning devoted workers in order to seek cheap labor. but if they refuse. they faU in their fidUCiary duty to the corporate person's one.dimensional interests.

Corporations originated in thick moral and communal contexts that yoked them to the common good Their specialization and efficiency brought many benefits. including large-scale manufacturing and long-term research and development. But over the years their efficiency. focus. and accumulation of wealth and power enabled them to overcome the limits originally placed on them. They shook free of the communities where they originated and now transcend even the states that charter their existence. …

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