The New York Times published an editorial on Tuesday on a case currently before the United States Supreme Court that, on its face is,
a fairly narrow campaign finance case, involving whether Citizens United, a nonprofit corporation, had the right to air a slashing movie about Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Democratic primary season.
In addition to posing a possible threat to the election system, this case highlights the greater question of corporate personhood- in other words, what rights and responsibilities should be given to corporations? Historically, the United States has been very generous in granting rights and very reserved in demanding responsibilities of corporate entities. The dangers of this combination are myriad (watch the movie online, read the book, or read a summary for an introduction to critiques of corporations). As the Times editors write,
To us, as well as many legal scholars, former justices and, indeed, drafters of the Constitution, the answer is that their rights should be quite limited — far less than those of people.
This Supreme Court, the John Roberts court, seems to be having trouble with that.
The structure of the corporation is, arguably, one of the contributing factors to our current economic crisis. Any discussion of systemic solutions and prevention of similar crisis in the future must consider the role of the corporation. As a society we tend to assume that our corporate system is identical to that of the rest of the world (not true) and that this structure is an absolute and unchangeable given (not true).
Do we have the will (political and otherwise) to question the role we have given the corporation and the serious consequences of that role? Probably not. Let’s do it anyway.