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Corporate personhood

  1. Oct 9, 2004 #1
    The United States recognizes corporations as individuals and grants them the same rights as an individual person. So the question is: "do corporations have a positive or a negative influence on a society?"

    I would rather not get into a economics debate (I rarely read those) so I see the hardest part of this question as being able to find the real societal value of a corporation OUTSIDE of pure economic benefit. So should a group be recognized as an individual?

    I see this "corporate personhood" as causing imbalance within a society and shifting the power away from the individual. I would like to expand my perspective though.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 10, 2004 #2


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    Corporations are not granted all of the rights that a natural person is granted. They are considered a fictitious person. Human rights are not granted to corporations, they cannot vote, they cannot hold public offfice, etc.. There are different types of corporations which have different legal and taxable status.

    Interesting questions. In what ways, specifically, do you see corporations impinging upon the natural individual's rights?

    I personally see corporations as a positive, without this type of protection, we would not have companies providing the services or products that we as a society benefit from.

    The corporation has no consciousness of it's own. Decisions are made by real people. It is these real people that can be a positive or a negative.

    Corporate status is just a law which allows a certain level of protection to individuals from personal liability. So, really, your questions seem to boil down to "should our laws protect individuals from liability under certain circumstances". Is this a benefit or liability to society?
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2004
  4. Oct 10, 2004 #3


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    one thing is the immortality

    I read an essay on the history of the corporation---it was years back---and the author dug up some examples of early legal charters (maybe
    Elizabethan, maybe around 1600, dont remember) creating this creature, this "legal person". and they had some misgivings about it. when they were creating this person (which they suspected might be dangerous) they tried putting in a mortality limit----it would die after a set number of years like 60 or 100.

    another is there is no theoretical limit on how intelligent it can get,
    with a composite brain and composite talent.

    (in terms of assimilating data and beating the tax laws and inventing and patenting inventions, discovering how to adict and manipulate the mass consumer, discovering ways of to get favors out of politicians, corporations are potentially smarter than humans----they can have composite brains, sometimes this doesnt work very well but in theory they can be superintelligent by being intellectual composites.)

    there is no theoretical limit on its appetite for money and power


    logically I guess a corporation is like an alien from another planet which we allow to live on earth and give the right to own property and hire some of us humans to do stuff, and work the political influence system (subject to
    surveillance and legal restrictions)

    the corporation is the Franken-monster of our civilization,

    corporations are interested in their own survival and in money and power, they pay humans to think for them with those motives in mind, to think from the standpoint of the company's interest (which does not automatically coincide with shareholder interest).

    they dont have a sense of history and beauty, or a love of science, except indirectly and in a way accidentally---their motivation is more like to grow, and survive, and maintain power over the legal/political environment (essential to their existence because they are legal entities) and make lots of profits for the shareholders and management

    a human has a limit on how much he or she can eat

    humans have only about 30 year career lifetimes of being at peak ability after education and apprentice-training.
    a CEO or CFO or other management class individual has to be educated and then undergo a kind of onthejob learning while they rise up the ladder, may need to be a protege of some more experienced individual.

    individual humans are typically interested in stuff besides money and power, they want sex, they want social status, approval, they may be interested in their families, they enjoy communal property that all humans share---that no one owns----like the air, the sky, the ocean. the mountain landscape (national and state parks) the forest, the art museum, the concert hall, the architecture of cities.

    an individual human will typically want to have some amount of money and power but then they also enjoy other things that corporations can't see
    (a corporation cannot see the forest or a great building, it can see the economic value of the forest or the image value of the building it it cannot enjoy it directly----it is like a blind man who can tell how much things are worth by touching them with very smart fingers, but cant look at them and feel how beautiful)

    corporations have different motives from us humans
    individual humans serve as their brain cells and their fingers but
    that does not let you predict what fundamental motives are driving the corporation

    one reason they are useful is because of their focus on profit
    (not getting distracted by sex, or worrying about their children or their place in history or their art collection---just focusing on their own growth and survival and paying CEOs to think for them with that in mind)

    corporations are very useful creatures

    but they are not humans and do not act like humans and
    there is some risk in giving over a large part of control of our politics and our environment and our lives to these non-human organisms---these aliens or automata which have human PARTS, replaceable human parts, but are not themselves quite human

    our media and our political system are so vulnerable to money-power

    thought experiment: suppose it was really a good idea to put a cap on how big a media-empire could be, to regulate how much of the market, or to make a limit on how long a conglomerate could live. or tax corporate income more than individual human income, or something inimical to corporations like that.

    but now suppose these corporations were green bipeds with antennas, suppose
    each one was EMBODIED---not just a legal entity with an advertising-created public image but a REAL BODY of some kind of super-intelligent immortal life-form. (this is a thought experiment)

    Now America is run by about 500 green men with suction-cup feet and antennas on their heads who do not have sex and do not breath the common air----they own most of the stuff---we like the products they provide---we dont completely understand their motives and we cant quite predict what they are going to do, but we like the lifestyle and comforts that they organize for us.

    suppose some politician runs for president on the platform of trimming back the power and survival and limits to growth of corporations, or reducing their political influence, or changing the tax laws to tax alien income instead of human income------intuition says that politician is going to have their career destroyed.

    the fundamental lesson is that you have to play ball with the aliens, you cannot challenge their vital interests, you cannot threaten their existence or try to put serious bounds on it, or something bad will happen to you----the media will turn against you, a propaganda machine will discredit you, tapes will be edited, lies told---whatever it takes. we dont know exactly why this happens or how it happens in each separate case, but...

    Well that is a fantasy, or thought experiment... my feeling is that once you give a lot of power to the little green men and once you are conditioned to live as their workers and voters and consumers, then it becomes very hard to take back power -----even though (in theory at least) humans make the laws that allow the little green men to exist!

    I wonder, if back in 1600, we could have done it differently, made different rules. I believe Elizabeth the first ruled England at the time and she had some rather clever advisors...
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2004
  5. Oct 10, 2004 #4


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    Marcus, I loved your post (as usual). The corporation can take on a life of it's own, especially after the original founders are long gone.

    Yes, society has created a monster, but it can be a benevolent monster, it can be an evil monster, but it is a monster we are not willing to kill.

    Immortality for the corporation is an important one and there are arguments for and against it. Historically, most U.S. states issued charters for fixed lengths of time (for example, a manufacturing corporation might receive a charter good for 40 years), and only by an act of the legislature. In theory, a limited charter forced corporations to remain accountable to government (i.e. to the community) for the special privileges granted to them. Investors protested that it actually led to unhealthy amounts of political payoffs and graft. Most states now charter unlimited-term corporations for a small fee, and possibly for a yearly tax.

    The first "corporation" "The alleged oldest commercial corporation in the world, the Stora Kopparberg mining community in Falun, Sweden, reportedly obtained a charter from King Magnus Eriksson in 1347."

    Here is the link http://www.wordiq.com/definition/Corporation
  6. Oct 10, 2004 #5


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    some delicious bits of information here Evo
    and how time flies
    only 200 years after Snorri wrote Heimskringla and
    a king is already setting up a business corporation
  7. Oct 10, 2004 #6


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    Marcus, and Evo, what I am reminded of by your posts is the fear that we may become the slaves of rogue AIs. Has it already happened, through those artificial persons, the corporations?
  8. Oct 11, 2004 #7


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    heh heh
    not yet certainly

    obviously we still have the vote and elect representatives who make the laws and regulations to which corporations are subject. so we are far from
    being slaves.

    however a lot of people apparently watch something called Fox
    and get their ideas from it
    and people seem to get less and less educated
    at some point majority public opinion may become fully manipulable
    a kind of phase change when we are suddenly 51 percent pliant
    and completely confused as to who is to blame for our debasement

    or can you perhaps reassure me that this cannot happen?
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2004
  9. Oct 11, 2004 #8


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    Incumbent Representatives and Senators are very seldom defeated. They have to do something really bad. So the power of the voters to change anything is really limited. And both Republican and Democratic incumbents receive a lot of (perfectly legal) campaign help from corporations. I don't see the electoral process as constituted as much of a check on the power of corporations.
  10. Nov 4, 2004 #9
    Marcus, I think a lot of the negative characteristics you attribute to corporations ARE shared by actual individuals. I think there is a limit to how theoretically intelligent it can get, as there is a limit to how intelligent its composite parts can get. You may say that that limit is still much higher than any individual, but that is not only a characteristic of any group of people with a common interest, it's also why we are where we are today, because we could communicate and build on information exchanged with peers, because a group of people able to communicate and pool ideas is smarter and stronger than an individual. We cannot try to stop this. that's how progress happens.

    How is there a theoretical limit to a single humans appetite for money and power? We are all interested in our own survival and power. Some ARE paid to think with the corporations interests in mind, but this is limited by the fact that the number one priority for them is still their own interests-I doubt many would happily take a bullet for their company, (this isn't '1984').

    A lot of people don't have a sense of history or beauty, or a love of science beyond what direct benefits these yeild them.

    A human has a limit to how much he can eat, but not to how much lunch money he can have, or how much food he can buy.

    Your paragraph on what humans are typically interested in is interesting, I would say that sex, social status, approval and family are all related to the desire of perpetuating your existence in the best possible way, in the form of your offspring.

    As for your thought experiment, there is are two problems- in a lifeform no part has its own interests ahead of the lifeform, and no one part can break off and serve its own interests if it feels that they are coming second, taking with it the benefits it gave its host. This means that a corporation is not a single entity operating solely on its own interests, but a collection of entities reping benefits in the most efficent way. and the 'replacable parts' mean that it is not even an immortal one, but a constantly changing one-its ideals and interests change as the individual parts change.

    Despite what I've said, I'm not pro-corporate believe it or not, and I do think the worst thing about them is the lack of liability. I'm an Aussie, and over here at the moment there is a huge court battle going on between a company and its previous employees who were all exposed heavily to asbestos in their work and now have cancer (the company knew). They as yet have not got any compensation, partly because no ONE person is responsible.

    This I feel, is the flaw of the corporate paradigm. All the other negative attributes can be applied to an individual just as much. I think the problem is a craving for power (especially now that there is so much power to be had), which was a problem well before the concept of a corporation-all that did was offer a way to make the risks lower.

    thanks, Babsyco.
  11. Nov 4, 2004 #10


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    I think the problem is that corporations systematically show the negative qualities, and you can show that they ought to be required to do so (to maximize shareholder profit). Whereas some humans are sobs, but others are not, and it isn't an essential requirement for a human to be an sob.
  12. Nov 10, 2004 #11
    That's true SelfAdjoint, but I think individual people who live in the big business world DO behave just as abhorrently as corporations. I think its the environment of this world that is responsible, not the corporation construct.

    Thanks, Babsyco.
  13. Nov 10, 2004 #12


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    If you think of two strivers trying for the top, and alike in evey trait except that one is more ruthless than the other, which one has the advantage? There is no big nanny to make them play nice with each other. So you would expect the people at the top to be significantly more ruthless than the general population.

    The other source of people at the top is hereditary priviledge - people like G.W. Bush. These folks attend special schools, which wouldn't accept you even if you could afford them, and are members of special clubs only for the priviledged, and as far as they can arrange it, never let your shadow cross their path. They think of all of us as "the little people", and don't give two pins for our opinion.

    So, thinking functionally, I agree with you. But I think the nature of corporations dictates the kind of people that gravitate to their tops.
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