Time to Make Corporations into People? Give me a Break!

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We want to continue an earlier discussion of the fallacies of the decision of the US Supreme Court in the Citizens United case from a viewpoint of pure logic and how it is a subject with which the legal profession as a whole seems quite unfamiliar.

The essential error in the decision in that case stems from the assumption that a corporate person is functionally equivalent in society to an individual. The patent falsity of this concept is well known to political scientists of the rationalist school since the 1940s; however, rationality is not a feature of today’s US political discourse.

It is quite common for societies to enact laws that are completely contrary to physical, social, and motivational reality. Indiana once legislated that the value of pi should be 4. Such misconceived law is always destructive. In fact, if our society were to ever enact sane, rational legislation it would be a cause of great celebration. The pillars of society—religion, government, and commerce—were never intended to function for the benefit of the public, rather they were developed by men to dominate and enslave people in service to a small conspiracy of worthless bullies.

Our liberation from enslavement is the recognition that these pillars rest upon the unsound foundation created by the violent suppression of erotic freedom, and our collective and unquestionable destiny is to undermine these foundations and demolish the false channels of support they offer to the delusions of a failed legacy social order. Anarchism (not anarchy) is the process by which we systematically replace old, worn, and coercive systems now enforced by the religion, government, and commerce with new, adaptive, voluntary systems that care for each human in equal measure.

Today we are witness to the initial quivering, the aura, the sense of deja vu of the American body politic as its collective psyche ramps up to the quadrennial grand mal seizure known as a “Presidential election.” Once again we test whether an irrational convulsion of uninformed public opinion can be exploited by the media to herd the ignorant, and everyone else caught up in the stampede, into the slaughterhouse. It makes no difference which slaughterhouse you choose—all provide equivalent service and none exist to foster the best interest of yourself or the converging mob of marching morons. And today, leading one of the marching moron contingents, is a descendant of George Romney, who was once the leading right-wing candidate for the presidency, with none other than “the movie actor who once played George Gipp” as his vice. What a load of vice that would have been!

Just yesterday little Romney, the spitting image of the man who once drove American Motors and a good part of Michigan into the toilet, spoke up with great faux-intellectual profundity to inform his audience that “corporations are people, my friend.” It is hard to imagine how any sane person would expect people to believe this or to vote for anyone who did. The parasites that perpetually inhabit the judicial chambers of the Supreme Court may be beyond the reach of common sense, but candidates are not so immune. Both people and politicians well understand the differences between individual decision making and that of groups. Our most skilled legislators have been expert at the manipulation of these differences to their advantage, while anyone who has personally faced corporate anonymity has experienced the difference first hand.

Groups of people, no matter how organized, whether as corporations, governments, or religions, are not in any way equivalent to individuals. Most critically, they are fundamentally incapable of prioritizing their desires or agendas in a way that fairly and equally addresses the needs of all their members. As an individual, you are free to consider your alternatives and choose what seems to best meet your perceived needs. If you are a very thoughtful person, you may make a brief cortico-thalamic pause before taking condign action. And you may, of course, be undecided until you are able to collect additional information.

While a group or team may make its best effort to simulate such a personal and individual process, the model being followed is inevitably deficient. It is easy to see how this deficiency develops. A rational individual follows a four-step process in taking action, which has been conveniently summarized in the acronym “OODA.” OODA stands for “orient, observe, decide, act.” OODA is executed in a loop, and the loop is executed as rapidly as practically possible to be maximally responsive to a shifting situation. When a committee tries to follow this process it is necessary to divide the labor or require synchronization of activities. In either case the behavior and capabilities of each team member combine with those of every other to diffuse personal responsibility for the decision or the outcome of the action.

In such a case, when no one bears personal responsibility, there is no possibility of accountability and thus no way to recursively improve the quality of decisions. A rational individual learns from mistakes. Groups will repeat mistakes unless solutions (which may themselves be mistaken) are dictated by a single individual. Let’s examine one case in which the diffusion of responsibility comes home to roost and unarguably shows the foolishness of imagining collectives to be individual persons.

On December 3, 1984, a Union Carbide Corporation pesticide plant in Bhopal, India leaked around 32 tons of toxic gases, including methyl isocyanate gas which led to the worst industrial disaster to date. The official death toll was initially recorded around 5,000. Many figures suggest that 18,000 died within two weeks, and it is estimated that around 8,000 have died since then of gas-poisoning-related diseases.

This disaster was caused by incompetent design, operation, and maintenance of a hazardous industrial facility. The largely anonymous parties who could have prevented it through greater technical competence and more attention to detail caused the deaths of 26,000 people. If this were a single, simple case of manslaughter, someone would be charged and punished, if only to discourage others from following their example. But how is any enforcement to be levied against the responsible firm? If the firm is a person, then there must be a way to make enforcement take on personal significance. But there is no personality in a company, no potential for collective accountability. Rather, the structure of most companies encourages the guilty to scapegoat the innocent and suffer no consequences at all for evil actions.

Financial judgment, the vehicle by which the judicial system imposes penalties on companies, is clearly inadequate. If a company can avoid responsibility for its crimes by a cash payment, why is not the same generosity extended to individuals? If an individual can be executed for premeditated murder, what comparable judgment applies to a company? Shall the entirety of its assets be seized? Should the corporate structure be dissolved? Should the company be forced to cease all operation?

There is no equitable answer to this challenge. There is no congruence or even similarity between persons and companies. Anyone who asserts such is non-rational and thus non-sane. It should be no surprise that an ignorant, thoughtless, and bigoted politician holds such views. It is truly tragic when delusional beliefs are held by the persons who seek responsibility for giving true meaning and value to our system of government.

—Dan Massey