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David vs. Goliath: Corporate Personhood at Odds with Democracy

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Message Donald Archer
When you think of a 'person'---Boeing, Halliburton, Enron, Time-Warner, and Pfizer don't spring to mind. But corporate power rests in language; and thanks to the manipulation of language---these colossal 'artificial persons' claim to be just like you and me, to be our 'equals' before the law---and entitled to all the protections under the law that we humble mortals are guaranteed, regardless of their immense size and power.

Unlike real persons, these 'legal fictions' are invincible: they are immortal, amoral, cannot be executed for capital crimes, cannot be put in jail for civil crimes, can move from country to country without a passport, and can accumulate wealth and power indefinitely. Therefore, lacking our natural human vulnerability, indomitable corporate 'persons' have little incentive to behave; and their behavior is conditioned by profit.

Forget that the Constitution and Bill of Rights were instituted to protect real persons, human beings, from the abuses of government and business, from unequal advantages and opportunities. Corporate power, masquerading as a 'person', has hijacked these human rights---to do whatever it pleases, at whatever cost to society, for profit.

For example, corporations hide behind the First Amendment right to free speech to unfairly fund political campaigns, engage in unequal political influence, and promote products that are harmful. They hide behind the Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure to protect themselves from legitimate regularory inspections regarding public health and safety. They hide behind the Fifth Amendment right to freedom from self-incrimination in order to dodge legitimate government investigation of business crimes. They hide behind the Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection, written to protect freed slaves, in order to challenge legitimate policies of taxation and fair trade.

They've done all this by claiming personhood, and perverting the term as we understand it. Corporate personhood has undermined democracy.

In the way political parties are organized, in the way officials are elected, in the way bills are written, in the way regulations are created and enforced, in almost every aspect of our lives, the influence of impersonal corporate power is felt. Like a Frankenstein, the product of our own creation has overtaken us---and we have become its victim and its slave.

Unsavory ethical decisions we personally would never make are being made on our behalf everyday. The impersonal nature of the economy and our government; the immense size and complexity of business enterprises; the distance between decision-makers and the communities they affect, between corporate administrators and institutional shareholders, all contribute to this lack of responsibility.

The result is a moral and ethical disconnect. We see no connection between our son-in-law being laid-off, and the rise in dividends our retirement fund received; no connection between the Air Force being gouged $200 for a ten-cent nut, and the profit our mutual fund made from defense contract stocks; no connection between the lack of facilities at our local school, and the no-property-tax subsidy the corporation in our stock-portfolio received.

Years ago, we were warned of the 'military-industrial complex'---President Eisenhower had written 'military-industrial-congressional complex' but he was advised to leave out 'congressional'.

We have seen every form of corporate interest---from security and exchange to healthcare, from the media to energy---using its 'personhood' to influence government and shield itself from negative consequences.

We now see major political candidates in both parties refusing to accept public campaign funding because they would lose the bottomless pit of corporate largesse, and special interests.

The root of this immense problem does not rest in a particular institution, industry, corporation, or individual; it lies in the system itself. As long as corporations enjoy all the rights and protections entitled to human persons, campaign 'reform'---Medicare 'reform', energy 'reform', and any other 'reform'---is futile and meaningless; behemoth corporate influence will remain dangerous and unequal.

Thom Hartmann has written in his extraordinary book, Unequal Protection, that challenging corporate 'personhood' at the local level is a first start.

Incorporation is a privilege, not a right. And as with the privilege of driving a car, a corporate charter can be changed or revoked when that privilege has been abused, or its operation presents a danger to society. Ordinances have been written by many communities throughout the nation, not dismantling or destroying corporations, but rescinding their unlawful and unconstitutional use of personhood---something they were never granted.

Your city and county could join these enlightened communities in correcting this inequity. This would not adversely affect local businesses, or small to medium-size corporations---in fact, it is to their advantage. It simply prevents giant corporations from taking advantage of their unequal economic position and influence, of abusing their privilege to incorporate---at the expense of the community and society in which they are chartered to serve.

This is the only sling we have to bring Goliath down to size. Unless, and until, the inequities of corporate 'personhood' are addressed, you and I---real persons, not legal fictions---will remain powerless, and 'democracy' a sham.
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Donald Archer is a painter, observer, and commentator living on California's Central Coast. His work may be seen at
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