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In the United States, corporations are people. A movie like The Corporation is highly critical of this, and in a reductio ad absurbum, concludes that the corporation as such can be diagnosed with psychopathy. The movie is loaded with arguments against corporate personhood, but as a documentary, does not attempt to be neutral. On the other hand, a frequently quoted conversation with Mitt Romney, as quoted by The Washington Post:

“Corporations are people, my friend,” Romney said.

Some people in the front of the audience shouted, “No, they’re not!”

“Of course they are,” Romney said. “Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?”

Leaving a discussion on what Romney means aside, what arguments can be given in favour of treating corporations as legal people?

Edit: As per DVK's comment, corporate personhood is apparently not limited to corporations. A question who it applies to is rather legal than political so probably off-topic, but answers that are broader and cover not only corporations, but also other non-living "persons" are certainly welcome.

  • <comments removed> Please keep comments focused on improving the post and try to not to turn comment threads into miniature chat rooms and debates. Thanks. – Robert Cartaino Dec 18 '12 at 19:11
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    You're simple mistaking person with human/people. A person as juridical term can be either corporate or physical. You shouldn't take the conversations with politicals seriously - they are using populistic, not scientific language. – Danubian Sailor Dec 21 '12 at 6:51
  • Romney simply meant that what is good for corporations is good for people (their employees, shareholders etc). – Anixx Oct 6 '15 at 16:40
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    The idea existed before the US came into being, and allows things like group ownership of property. Can you imagine the mess if thousands of shareholders had to appear on ownership documents, and the hassle of updating when one person sells up? – Phil Lello Mar 31 '16 at 23:49
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It might make sense to look at this slightly different way. The Supreme Court decision does not pretend that legal entities are human.

It says that humans are free to pool their resources and exercise their freedom of speech through an organization they set up.

Individuals don't have to belong to 'media companies' to be able to organize to exercise their freedom of speech:

It's lucky for the New York Times Co. that the Supreme Court upheld its First Amendment rights. Otherwise, it could not have exercised its First Amendment right to denounce the court for upholding its First Amendment rights. Right?

Not quite. As Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in his opinion, the McCain-Feingold "campaign finance" law--which until yesterday's ruling made it a felony for corporations to engage in certain political speech--exempted "media companies" like the New York Times Co. (and News Corp., publisher of The Wall Street Journal and this Web site) from this restriction.

McCain-Feingold, in other words, granted a small group of companies, including the New York Times Co., the privilege to speak freely about politics, while denying it to all other corporations--not only "companies … that exist to make money," but also taxable nonprofits that exist to represent a point of view, including the advocacy arms of the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association.

As for Mitt Romney's statement, I believe Jack and Suzy Welch put it best:

Corporations are people working together toward a shared goal, just as hospitals, schools, farms, restaurants, ballparks and museums are. Yes, the people who invest in, manage and work for corporations are there to make a profit. And yes, corporations may employ some bureaucrats, jerks, cheapskates and even nefarious criminals.

But most individuals working in corporations are regular people, people just like you and your friends and neighbors. People who want to make a living and want to make a difference.

It might be instructive to look at the actual case that brought about the cries of "corporations are not people!" See Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In his concurrence, Scalia writes:

The dissent says that when the Framers “constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment , it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind.” Post, at 37. That is no doubt true. All the provisions of the Bill of Rights set forth the rights of individual men and women—not, for example, of trees or polar bears. But the individual person’s right to speak includes the right to speak in association with other individual persons. Surely the dissent does not believe that speech by the Republican Party or the Democratic Party can be censored because it is not the speech of “an individual American.” It is the speech of many individual Americans, who have associated in a common cause, giving the leadership of the party the right to speak on their behalf. The association of individuals in a business corporation is no different—or at least it cannot be denied the right to speak on the simplistic ground that it is not “an individual American.” (emphasis mine)

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    Good answer. It's more complicated than I thought (of course). Even limiting campaign donations won't do it, because nothing can really stop rich people from getting together to exercise their free speech for or against candidate X... – gerrit Dec 18 '12 at 10:05
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    This isn't unique to rich people. This notion also protects the rights of groups like OWS to assemble and exert their collective free speech rights. The notion is that the sum of two people's individual rights is no less than the whole of them combined. At the bottom of this, it really is a censorship case in Citizens United. That is, the opponents of the decision argue that free speech (a political movie) can be restricted in promoting a political view close to an election cycle. – JohnFx Dec 19 '12 at 3:33
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The main argument (correctly, if somewhat less than articulately listed by Romney), comes from the Supreme court.

"Under the designation of 'person' there is no doubt that a private corporation is included [in the Fourteenth Amendment]. Such corporations are merely associations of individuals united for a special purpose and permitted to do business under a particular name and have a succession of members without dissolution". (From US Supreme Court in 1888 in Pembina Consolidated Silver Mining Co. v. Pennsylvania - 125 U.S. 181)

In essence, a corporation is nothing more or less than a group of people (shareholders) who agree to own a common business. And a state should not be allowed to treat the corporation unequally to a single person, since it's merely a group of people.

To do otherwise, it's as if you discriminated against a group of people merely because they happen to own shares in a company, against people who do NOT own shares in a company.

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    Why would that be discrimination? Each share-holding person has equal rights compared to each non-shareholding person. They're still all individuals before the law, and when it comes to voting, they are. Corporations can't vote, can they? – gerrit Dec 17 '12 at 17:35
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    @gerrit - if you pass a law that treats a shareholder of a corporation differently from a person (for example, you can give money to a political campaign from your savings account, but a shareholder can not give money from their association), then you are discriminating against those shareholders. As I noted in the comment to the question, in the main contentious issues, OTHER associations of people are treated as persons (e.g. unions) – user4012 Dec 17 '12 at 17:38
  • <comments removed> Please keep comments focused on improving the post and try to not to turn comment threads into miniature chat rooms and debates. Thanks. – Robert Cartaino Dec 18 '12 at 19:13
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It is understood that you are looking for arguments in favour of corporate personhood, but I don't think you can completely understand the pro's without seeing some of the con's. I think this is at least food for thought.

I would argue the premise, the idea of a corporation as "merely" an association of individuals. A corporation (particularly in the current economy) is primarily a fiduciary instrument of the shareholders.

Being a shareholder in a corporation is not a form of association. It is primarily ownership. Are all the owners of Ford automobiles an association? No, not simply by buying a car. Other Ford owners do not represent me in any way, nor would they get to speak for me.

If not the shareholders, what about the employees of the corporation? They seem to be associated by the "mission" of the corporation.

I think that is not the defining characteristic of the association. The association between the corporate entity and the people within it is an employment relationship, a legal link between employers and employees. It is not necessarily an association of like-minded individuals, save for the need to provide the basics of life.

Furthermore, the corporate entity can limit the speech of the employees within the scope of their employment and not vice-versa - so it is an unequal association, which calls into question the equanimity of rights assigned to each - in contravention to fundamental tenets enshrined in the bill of rights and constitution.

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    any individual can choose to buy shares in a publicly traded company and can vote on the board members. Employees in a right-to-work state can choose to stop working for their company, of they choose not to not have their speech limited. – user1873 Jun 14 '14 at 1:31

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