“Corporations cannot commit treason, nor be outlawed, nor excommunicated, for they have no souls.”- Edward Coke
Historically, capitalism has been denounced by opponents as heartless and greedy. In contemplating this characterization, I find that critics are not necessarily wrong. The profit motive of capitalism is born in maximizing returns, and the system itself is not concerned with how that is achieved. This is not to say that capitalism is immoral, so much as amoral. This, in my opinion, is one of the greatest strengths of capitalism; it is agnostic. A common mistake of opponents and proponents of capitalism is to anthropomorphize the corporation. i.e. to give it a soul. It then can become the object of moral judgment as either evil or righteous, depending on its politics.
At great risk of being canceled by my own side, I’m about to say something about broken clocks: On the subject of corporate citizenship, Bernie Sanders is right; corporations are not people. Corporations are comprised of people who get a say in their communities every single day, and therefore this idea that corporations get a second seat on the shareholder’s dime at the public discussion table is absurd. Corporations are responsible to shareholders and not voters. I shouldn’t have to buy stock in a company to have a voice in my community, or compete against the vast monetary resources of the corporation in driving public policy. Where Bernie Sanders goes off the rails, is in the idea that a corporation that is owned by shareholders is not a person, but a corporation that is owned by the government is. You don’t make a corporation accountable by giving it to the government.
For a long time, the American Left has decried corporations while enjoying their fruits in the form of taxes. I have long said that if you want to get the corporation out of the public coffers, you have to get the public hands out of the corporation’s pockets. This is a two-way street. So long as the public is getting a say in how the corporation spends its dollars, the corporation will work to influence public policy in a manner that benefits its bottom line.
This idea of corporate personhood or its responsibilities as a corporate citizen arises in modern discourse from the Citizen’s United v FEC case brought in 2010 by the conservative non-profit, Citizen’s United. This of course because at the time of the Citizen’s United case, conservatives generally enjoyed the support of big business which found an ally in the low-tax and low-regulation environment afforded by conservatives in government. Conservatives readily welcomed the buying power and influence they could harness from these companies to personally enrich themselves and further their political careers. Having tapped out their growth strategies based on developing superior products and services, the corporations found that they must effectively harness regulation to keep competition out. What did they have to give in return to earn the moral imperative of the authoritarian spectrum of government? They had to prove their citizen bona fides by adopting leftist, activist politics. Think Coca-Cola: Be Less White.
If a corporation has no soul, it can’t possibly care about societal good. This is not a judgment on a corporation’s members, shareholders, or its consumer base. These are all very real people groups who have individual responsibilities to their communities. The job opportunities, the products, and services provided to local communities are in themselves a public good. There is no need to supplement that with political activism. In fact, in a system that is agnostic and exists to create wealth, we should all give pause when a company has so much money that they no longer care about ostracizing their own consumer base. I am unaware of anyone who thinks the solution to what ails our political system is more lobbying or corporate influence.
“The realistic way to reduce the amount of money in politics is to reduce the amount of politics in money.” – George Will