The U.S. Constitution is the foundation of our political system, but to find its spirit, we must look to the Declaration of Independence. When our nation struggles with difficult questions, it is this document that serves as a North Star to keep us on course with our founding vision.
One such question that we wrestle with today is whether our Constitution provides corporations the same rights of “personhood” it grants to real people like you and me.
The U.S. Supreme Court has already answered this question; in its view, corporations are legal persons with the same constitutional rights as actual people. This legal fiction serves a number of practical purposes, but over time, the courts have gradually expanded the implications of corporate personhood in ways that undermine democracy in this country. Last January’s Citizens United Supreme Court case is the latest example and it paints a sobering picture for the future of our democracy.
It’s Not Natural
This legal fiction, that corporations are “persons,” is counter-intuitive to most people. A recent poll by Hart Research Associates shows that nearly four-out-of-five Americans would support a Constitutional amendment clarifying that corporations do not have the same rights as people. I’m not convinced the respondents fully understood the issue; I don’t fully understand it myself and I’ve been following it for a few years. Still, at a gut level the idea that corporations are legal persons, granted the same Constitutional rights as real people, just doesn’t make intuitive sense.
So, is the Supreme Court right? The Court deals with complex issues that don’t always translate into common sense, and it’s not its job to represent the popular will. Nonetheless, the question of whose rights are actually protected under the Constitution is foundational to our democracy. When the Supreme Court is this far out of alignment with the American people on such a fundamental principle, particularly when its position aligns so closely with the interests of wealthy and powerful forces, it deserves a deeper look. In doing so, we must look beyond the Court’s rendering of the letter of law, and back to the spirit on which it was founded – to our Declaration of Independence.
The preamble to our Declaration of Independence is one of the most powerful statements ever made in the English language and it very clearly lays out the founding principles of this nation:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Spirit of ’76
What did Jefferson have in mind in choosing the word “Creator” in this preamble? While my job here is not to preach, this word “Creator” does feature prominently in the Founding Fathers’ argument for independence. So even if you personally don’t believe in God, it is very clear that they are appealing to a higher power as the source of our unalienable rights. It’s not my business to tell you how to interpret the Founding Fathers’ use of the word “Creator,” but it is my purpose here to say that as an American citizen, the foundation of our unalienable rights is a statement that is deeply and fundamentally spiritual in nature.
By framing the founding principles of this country in this way, the Founding Fathers were saying that regardless of differences in our individual abilities and fortunes, we are all equal in the eyes of God. Our intrinsic value is not based on the relative strength of our muscles, the intelligence of our brains, or the dexterity of our hands. It rests instead in the heart, the seat of the soul. For here we can truly say that no heart is more important than another; that God values all souls implicitly and equally.
This is a radical idea, or at least it was at the time. It is, at its core, a spiritual statement, one which cannot truly be appreciated or understood without a deep, abiding sense of the intrinsic value of the human soul and an underlying belief that mine is no more valuable than yours. We see similar ideas reflected in the words of Jesus, the Buddha, and other great spiritual teachers, but founding a country on these ideas was something new.
Two Operating Systems
As a country, we have agreed to run our economic sphere based on more natural, more biological principles symbolized so eloquently by Adam Smith in the “invisible hand” of the market. Smith argued that our collective good is best served when we allocate resources based on who can put those resources to best use. In other words, we do better as a whole when we ensure resources get to the best brains, the strongest muscles and the most skilled hands. While it is far from perfect, as a country we have proven we do quite well for ourselves tapping the entrepreneurial power of the market.
So at the same time Jefferson was laying the foundation of our political sphere, Smith was laying the foundation of our economic sphere; one based on the law of the jungle, the other on the intrinsic value found within each of our souls. You might say our political rights as citizens are vested in our hearts while we hold our economic liberties in our hands. It’s as if this country had two high-functioning, but distinct operating systems – one for economics and one for politics.
Political and Economic Fairness
We Americans care deeply about fairness even if we have two very different understandings of what it means: one tied to politics, the other to economics. Those on the left tend to prioritize the egalitarian sense of fairness enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, while those on the right prioritize the libertarian sense of fairness represented in the invisible hand of the market. With egalitarian fairness, what’s fair is that you and I have equal rights. With libertarian fairness, what’s fair is that I get to keep the fruits of my hard work and risk taking.
The alloy of American society is strengthened by these two understandings of fairness. Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith penned our best articulations of these two underlying principles in the very same year our nation was born. You could say they are hard-wired into the DNA of this country. It’s important to remember, however, that these two very different sets of principles were not written together. They are complementary principles that actually place important checks upon one another; checks that result in a creative tension that is not only good for us, but the source of our greatness.
When one of these understandings of fairness is allowed to dominate the other, it inevitably leads to corruption. It may be egalitarianism destroying the entrepreneurial energy of a communist society or the rampant abuses of money in politics that we see in our own country today. The point is that these two operating systems need to operate in parallel, without crossing and infecting one another.
Heart of the Issue, Soul of the Matter
When we confuse corporations with citizens, we blur the lines of our political and economic operating systems and allow the law of the jungle to infect the political ideals on which this country was founded.
Look again at the precise wording in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. It is very specific in ascribing unalienable rights to “men.” Over many years and through the blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifices of many men and women, this country has expanded its understanding of this reference to “men” into something more akin to “human beings.” Each of these shifts entailed momentous national debate and even domestic turmoil. How strange then to have these same rights quietly extended behind closed doors to something not even human or even alive.
More fundamentally, we must ask ourselves whether it is even possible to say that a corporation is “created equal to men” or that it is endowed by its “Creator” with unalienable rights. While it might be meaningful to compare the brains, muscles, and hands of a corporation with yours or mine, how could we compare its heart or its soul to yours or mine when we know that it has neither heart nor soul? As to its “creator”, well here we are stuck with a lower case “c” rather than an upper case “C,” for it is we humans who create corporations, not the higher power called upon by our Founding Fathers in the founding principles of our country.
Our democracy suffers today from the undo influence of money in our politics. One culprit is the granting of our fundamental Constitutional rights to corporations. To reverse this trend and begin rebuilding the glory of our great democracy, we must start with one simple question: do corporations have a soul in the sense intended by the founding principles of this nation? The answer can be no more clear or unequivocal, and it is “no.” All else proceeds from this one deep truth.
Follow Gideon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gideonro