Corporations: Different Than You and Me
and Robert Weissman
are fundamentally different than you and me.
a simple truth that Big Business leaders desperately hope the public will not
helps companies immeasurably that the law in the United States and in many other
countries confers upon them the same rights as human beings.
the United States, this personhood treatment, established most importantly in a
throwaway line in an 1886 Supreme Court decision, protects the corporate right
to advertise (including the tobacco companies' right to market their deadly
wares), corporations' ability to contribute monetarily to political campaigns,
and interferes with regulators' facility inspection rights (via corporate rights
against unreasonable search and seizure).
even more important than the legal protections gained by faux personhood status
are the political, social and cultural benefits.
aggressively portray themselves as part of the community (every community), a
friendly neighbor. If they succeed in that effort at self-characterization, they
know what follows: a dramatically diminished likelihood of external constraints
on their operations. If a corporation is part of the community, then it is
entitled to the same freedoms available to others, and the same presumption of
non-interference that society appropriately affords real people.
because corporations work so aggressively and intentionally to obscure the
point, it is crucial to draw attention to the corporation as an institution with
unique powers, motivations and attributes, and to point to the basic differences
between human beings and the socially constituted and authorized institutions
are 10 differences between corporations and real people:
Corporations have perpetual life.
Corporations can be in two or more places at the same time.
Corporations cannot be jailed.
Corporations have no conscience or sense of shame.
Corporations have no sense of altruism, nor willingness to adjust their behavior
to protect future generations.
Corporations pursue a single-minded goal, profit, and are typically legally
prohibited from seeking other ends.
There are no limits, natural or otherwise, to corporations' potential size.
Because of their political power, they are able to define or at very least
substantially affect, the civil and criminal regulations that define the
boundaries of permissible behavior. Virtually no individual criminal has such
Corporations can combine with each other, into bigger and more powerful
Corporations can divide themselves, shedding subsidiaries or affiliates that are
controversial, have brought them negative publicity or pose liability threats.
unique attributes give corporations extraordinary power, and makes the challenge
of checking their power all the more difficult. The institutions are much more
powerful than individuals, which makes all the more frightening their
single-minded profit maximizing efforts.
have no conscience, or has been famously said, no soul. As a result, they
exercise little self-restraint. Exacerbating the problem, because they have no
conscience, many of the sanctions we impose on individuals - not just
imprisonment, but the more important social norms of shame and community
disapproval - have limited relevance to or impact on corporations.
fact that corporations are not like us, their very unique characteristics, makes
crucially important the development of an array of controls on corporations.
These include: precise limits on corporate behaviors (such as actively enforced
environmental, consumer, worker safety regulations); limits on corporate size
and power (through vigorous antitrust and pro-competition policy, including
limits on the scope of intellectual property protections); restrictions and
prohibitions on corporate political activity (including through comprehensive
campaign finance reform); carefully tailored civil and criminal sanctions
responsive to the particular traits of corporations including denying wrongdoing
companies the ability to bid for government contracts; equity fines - fines paid
in stock, not dollars; creative probation, with a court-appointed ombudsman
given authority to order specific changes in corporate activities; and
restrictions on corporations' ability to close or move facilities.
is also the permanent challenge of building countervailing centers of people
power to balance concentrated corporate power: unions above all, plus consumer,
environmental, indigenous rights and other civic groups, organized in
conventional and novel formations.
there is the imperative of directly confronting the corporate claim to
personhood and community neighbor status - both in the law and in the broader
is the beginning of a sketch of an ambitious agenda, but there is no
alternative, if democracy is to be rescued from the corporate hijackers who
masquerade as everyday citizens.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999).