The vast majority of wealth and many politicians in our nation are owned by for-profit corporations. But rarely are some aspects of for-profit corporations discussed.
Five decades ago, a wise old law professor told his corporations class: “In this class, you will learn how to create a legal person, a person potentially immortal, a person with neither a soul to be saved nor a butt to be kicked, a person whose only conscience is its bottom line.”
For-profit corporations are by nature amoral. In other words, they evaluate prospective actions merely as whether those actions will be profitable. They are not patriotic nor compassionate but very simply either profitable or not. The law professor illustrated the “conscience” of the corporation as follows: A corporation, to increase its profits, must pollute the river instead of otherwise disposing its toxic waste.
There is a basis to argue that this soulless, conscienceless, fictitious person must send jobs to India or China if doing so would substantially increase profits. Indeed, an argument could also be made that if the officers and directors of the corporation fail to take advantage of an opportunity for profits by sending jobs overseas, they might be personally liable to stockholders. Corporations cannot engage in any activity for the public good unless such activity promises to somehow increase profits. For example, a corporation can donate to a charity as long as there is a good chance doing so would improve its image and therefore its bottom line. Provided an act is legal, no matter how odious, the corporation must take it if it will substantially increase profits.
This artificial entity the Supreme Court has granted personhood over the years and has equated with the rest of humankind, who fortunately have souls and consciences. This artificial person has equal rights, although it cannot go to jail even for the most heinous crimes. The most that can be done to penalize a corporation is to impose a monetary fine in hope of controlling offensive activities by affecting its bottom line.
Recently, the Supreme Court, using rather tortured reasoning, concluded this soulless, conscienceless, artificial person has the right of free speech. Consequently, corporations now have the right to donate unlimited funds to help elect politicians. Corporations, in effect, invest in politicians. Of course, because of their structure and purpose, corporations can give money to a politician only if that politician’s election would increase the profits of the corporation. More and more politicians are being bought and paid for by these artificial persons. Did the founders of our nation envision such a predicament, in which the majority of our nation’s wealth and a substantial portion of its political structure are owned by fictitious persons created by the stroke of a pen?
The only recourse against abuses by corporations is strict regulation of their activity by government. We could require corporations to keep their offices in the United States, to keep their production jobs in the United States, by regulating them through taxes and penalties. Unfortunately, this remedy is unlikely because more and more corporate-owned politicians are calling for deregulation of corporate activity. Is anyone surprised?
Apparently the Tea Party, the Libertarians, and some right-wing Republicans want us all to adopt the values of the modern corporation. How else could one explain the renewed popularity of Ayn Rand’s writing, which is treated with renewed Biblical fervor by some politicians? Rand exposed a philosophy of selfishness, small government, and elimination of humanitarian programs. Only selfishness can make the world better, in her view.
The libertarian Republican Rand Paul reportedly was named for the author. He, as was she, is a staunch advocate of capitalism, self-interest, and small government. That Ayn Rand was also a vehement atheist and advocate of abortion and sexual hedonism is carefully overlooked by her modern devotees. The Tea Party’s promotion of Rand has sparked such a resurgence of interest in her writings her books have again hit the best-seller lists after languishing for years.
It is frightening to consider our society might embrace a philosophy that would make us the mirror image of the soulless corporation, yet that is what will surely happen if we are seduced by the tempting allure of selfishness as a way of life. But that really couldn’t happen—could it?
Jim Duenow is an attorney in San Luis Obispo. Send comments via the opinion editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.