The Supreme Court recently ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that corporations have the same 1st Amendment rights as individual people. As such, corporations are now legally permitted unlimited spending on political advertisements.
This overturns a restriction set in place in 1907 when Theodore Roosevelt got congress to bar corporations, railroads and banks from using their money in federal election campaigns. This restriction was later extended to labor unions.
Corporations do, however, still chafe under two restrictions. First, they cannot directly fund candidates in federal elections. Second, they are required to identify themselves in the political advertisements they buy.
Since corporations are considered to be legal persons, this ruling does take that status to a logical conclusion. After all, if a corporation is a person and people have 1st Amendment rights, then a corporation has such rights.
However, such rights are not always guaranteed. After all, the same sort of conservatives who have supported this ruling have also argued that not all people deserve the same rights as Americans. To be specific, it has been argued that folks who are considered terrorists should not have the usual legal rights. Likewise, corporations could also be taken as not having such legal rights, even though they are taken to be persons.
This line of thought does raise an interesting point. If the logic of the ruling is taken as “If X is a person then X gets all the legal rights of a person”, then this would certainly seem to have to apply across the board. As such, terrorists should get the same legal rights as everyone else.
Obviously, it will be argued that terrorists must have their rights restricted for national security reasons and to protect America from harm. This same sort of argument can be applied to the corporations. After all, we surely do not want foreign corporations manipulating our elections nor do we want to face the potential harms that unlimited corporate spending could inflict on our democracy.
This, of course, leads nicely to a consequentialist argument against this ruling. A central concern of the folks who oppose this ruling is that such unlimited corporate spending will do serious damage to the political process .
First, the much greater wealth of corporations will allow them to vastly outspend real people and thus grant them undue influence in the election process. Naturally, this is not just a concern about corporations but also a concern about wealthy individuals. This does, however, assume that elections are influenced by spending. This does seem to be the case, but can be debated.
Second, this opens up new doors of corporate influence. While companies cannot directly give to candidates, they can indirectly support them by buying advertising. This provides the politicians with even more temptation to become servants of the corporate masters (not that they are not already at the corporate feeding pail). While sometimes what is good for GM is good for America, this is not always the case. Of course, the government is already strongly influenced by corporate lobbyists and it might be argued that this ruling simply removes a delusion of democracy, namely that corporations do not have vast influence over politics already.
One final point I wish to address is the matter of corporations being persons. Since they are merely a legal fiction, they are not real people. Also, it is easy enough to bring up various intuitively plausible philosophical definitions of “person” and show how corporations do not meet these conditions. They are, of course, legally persons. But, of course, the supreme court could rule that my left testicle is a person.
Rather than contend with the notion that corporations are persons, I will grant that. I will even grant that this entitles corporations to 1st Amendment rights. However, this status would also entail that corporations must also be treated as individuals in all other ways.
First, they must be subject to the same tax laws as individuals. For example, the whole corporation just gets a standard deduction and must itemize for other deductions. There must be no special corporate exemptions, tax breaks or any such things that all individuals do not receive.
Second, corporations must be eligible for jury duty. Since the entire entity is the corporation, if it is called for duty then the entire person must go. After all, when I am called for duty, I have to go in my entirety. The same must apply to corporations.
Third, when corporations break the law, then the entire corporation must be punished. If jail time is part of the sentence, then the entire corporation must serve the time. After all, if I were sentence to jail, then I must go in my entirety.
Fourth, corporations must register for selective service and be subject to the draft in times of war. They must be treated like any other draftee (being required to go through basic training, for example).
And so on, for all other laws that apply to individuals. Oh, lest I forget-those that are American citizens do get to vote (one person, one vote), but they must meet the proper residency age, and other requirements.