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In person

January 6, 2013

The concept of “corporate personhood” has come under increasing attack during the past few years.  To be more specific, activists object to profit-making bodies being accorded the same rights as individuals, particularly with regard to corporate political influence and the separation of personal from corporate liability when mismanagement is involved.  They argue that suppression of corporate rights is necessary to social justice, and that abstract entities should not be privileged equally with citizens.  Their arguments, however, fail to deal with the theoretical structure underpinning government endorsement of corporate personhood.

A corporation is an idea, the product of imagination, nothing more.  It exists because a group of people got together and decided it would exist, and because the community as a whole agreed to recognize that decision.  The act of incorporation, in effect, is the act of securing a formal acknowledgement that an imaginary individual has a real existence.  The corporation is not a person, but is treated as one by common consent.

No nation-state will ever be willing–or, for that matter, able–to admit that a corporation is not a person.  Why?  Because, by declaring a corporation to be without personal rights, it would effectively declare that a conceptual entity in general cannot possess the same rights as a person.  And by extension, that means that the state itself, which is a conceptual entity, would also be denied the rights of an individual, whether it be to exercise authority, to own property, or to interact and enter into relationships with other individuals.  A decision that took away the personhood of a corporation would simultaneously take away the personhood of a nation-state as well.

Because such a decision would deprive the state of its own legal basis for existence, it is also doubtful whether the state or its organs, such as the courts, would even have the ability to make it.  Sovereignty and authority are required to enact laws.  If a law or precedent is proposed that takes away the same sovereignty and authority required to enact that law in the first place, can the law actually be made?  Is it valid?  Or does it merely create an infinite loop of intellectual anarchy without an exit?  In everyday life, this sort of speculation is meaningless, since humans will simply ignore it and come to whatever practical arrangement is most beneficial to them.  But it is exactly the sort of theoretical argument that would weigh with the state and prevent it from ever absolutely rejecting corporate personhood, lest it inadvertently undermine its own legitimacy.

Collective belief and agreement are not necessarily reality, even if human beings are willing to accept them as concrete absolutes.


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