“Corporations aren’t people! They don’t have rights! They’re lifeless entities!”
I hear this argument often by people who claim government has the authority to limit corporate contributions to political campaigns (never will they consider limiting the power given to an elected office or identifying it as the problem). Or, most recently, the Hobby Lobby controversy over whether or not a business has to provide certain contraceptives to its employees in spite of the religious objections of the owners.
This was the argument made by Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg in her dissenting opinion on the Hobby Lobby decision. Her interpretation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is something to marvel at, the same way one marvels at a child who claims categorically that families aren’t people and therefore their parents cannot refuse to buy them candy and toys.
I cannot help but observe the twisted logic inherent in this rationale. The argument goes as follows: Corporations aren’t people, therefore when people form corporations they give up certain rights. If, however, that person gets elected to a government office, they not only do not give up their rights but they are granted privileges and power and authority that puts them above those who elected them.
According to William Norman Grigg:
“The exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities,” Ginsburg complained in her dissent in the Court’s recent Hobby Lobby ruling. In defense of that proposition she cites John Marshall’s description of a corporation as “an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law.” In similar fashion, she quotes John Paul Stevens’ observation that corporations “have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires.”
Ginsburg appears to be a chromosome-level statist, which is why she doesn’t understand that this descriptive language also applies to the fictive entity called “government.” It, too, is an invisible, impersonal abstraction existing only in the minds of those who believe in it. The “government” has no body, parts, or passions. It has no hands save those that are raised by believers in violence against the infidels, and (to paraphrase Nietzsche) no wealth save that which was stolen in its name.
The substantive difference between a business enterprise and a “government” is that the former is an association of people who engage in commerce, rather than coercion. Absent the cooperation of those calling themselves the government, a corporation cannot compel anybody to purchase their services. The majority in the Hobby Lobby ruling tentatively suggested that there are limits on the government’s supposed authority to compel people to purchase services on behalf of others – a development Ginsburg treats as a portent of impending anarchy. We should only be so lucky.
Perhaps a new libertarian strategy is to turn this argument on its head. Governments aren’t people. Therefore, politicians have no right to force us to do anything we don’t consent to do. Government has no conscience, no belief, no feeling, no thoughts, and no desires.
As Grigg points out, they also have no legitimate claim to that which they possess. Corporations collect profits from people who voluntarily pay them – assuming the corporation is not using the coercion powers of government as part of their business model.
The consent with corporations or private entities is not implied, nor it is regarded as a social contract. It is a de facto contract that requires your consent before you can use their services and before they can charge you for it. The only time this is not the case is when a corporation is able to exploit the coercion and power of the State to its own ends.
Just for the record, in the event someone somewhere makes the ridiculous claim about libertarians like myself, we do not worship corporations or consider them above reproach or run by saints. In many instances, the only moral difference between a corrupt business and a politician is that the businessman can’t dupe anyone into thinking he has authority over them without their consent.
If people understand that government is not a person, then why do people continually speak about the State as though it were a living, breathing organism that thinks, hears, feels and cares about people?
We have all heard the statements: We need the government to look out after us. We need the government to protect us. The government keeps us safe. Without the government there would be chaos!
But if government is not a person, either, then how can any of this be true? And when you put a face to this entity, specifically one they hate, this argument falls apart. No liberal will ever claim they needed George W. Bush to keep them safe or to protect them or that he cared about them, and no conservative will ever accept such a statement about Barack Obama. Somehow, this doesn’t prevent them from believing they need the very entity with which these people control their lives.
It’s amazing that people, particularly progressives, view corporations and private businesses as evil entities seeking to cheat, steal and defraud individuals, but regard government’s natural role as a protector and guardian and that it is the government’s job to protect them. Much of this is due to a misunderstanding of privatization and what constitutes the free market.
For example, they believe the government sub-contracting with private corporations to conduct surveillance or hiring mercenaries to fight in wars overseas constitutes “privatization.” As a reporter, I enjoyed the film State of Play, but it too makes this same error. It examines the consequences of hiring private contractors to fight in wars and handle national security, seemingly ignoring the fact that they are still contracted through the government and paid through taxation.
Returning to Ginsburg’s argument, what it really boils down to is that she believes the government has the authority to force a private business to provide contraceptives for their employees but the business owner does not have the right to decide what is done with their property. She is outraged, because she erroneously believes government has total authority and when individuals run a business or form a corporations they check their rights at the door.
Remember, this wasn’t about whether people could buy contraceptives. They are freely available and affordable; and Hobby Lobby already provides their employees for 16 out of the 20 contraceptives available. They simply did not want to pay for ones that cause or induce abortions.
What this court case came down to was whether the government and its proponents can force an employer to pay for anything they want them to pay for because people believe they have a right to have them as part of their employment and they have the right to use violence and coercion against them if it is not offered.
This goes back to what I’ve written on previously concerning sociopathic logic, which can be used even by a normal person. The logic runs like this; what’s theirs is theirs and what’s yours is theirs, as well.
This is the reasoning that justifies the use of the State to force others to do what you want them to do. It is also how people can claim you are violating their rights by not providing something for them, because they believe they have a right to your property.
It begs the whole question: If businesses like Hobby Lobby had no right to withhold paying for contraceptives for their employees, then what right does the Supreme Court have to tell them they must pay for it? This argument only works if you believe government has presumed authority that is innate and self-justifying; it has power because it has declared itself to have it and has the violence to enforce it.
So the next time you hear someone say “corporations aren’t people,” remind them that governments aren’t, either.