Friday, January 22, 2010

Of axioms and bananas

Implicit in my post yesterday warning that America is at danger from a corporate takeover was that this is a bad thing; to anyone who thinks that it's a neutral or even good thing, the whole post would have read like a Michael Mooreian rant. My post was predicated largely on one prediction and one axiom: the prediction was that corporations would drown out individual humans in the public discourse, and the axiom was that humans are more important than corporations.

The problem with axioms is that they're the dead ends of arguments. You can debate a prediction or a logical connection, but an axiom is more or less the end of discussion. This is often times lethal to policy. For instance, many Americans, and particularly the GOP, have an axiomatic belief that the free market is always the best mechanism for allocating resources. Empirical evidence shows that this isn't always the case — health care is a great example — but no amount of empirical evidence can trump an axiom. That's what makes it an axiom.

The only thing you can do with an axiom is to explore its implications (as I'll do in just a bit) to see whether they really match your intuition, and to see if the axiom really deserves being one. The fewer axioms we have, the more discussion we can have (since we have fewer dead ends) — so if we can demote an axiom to a hypothesis, we should.

Back to my axiomatic belief that corporations are lesser than individuals. Some people would say this is because corporations are just an artificial construction of our legal system; but I don't buy that. Every legal entity is an artificial abstraction of a (hopefully) real thing, and corporations are real things. Banding together in groups in order to co-operate is human instinct.

But I would argue that while injustices against humans are wrong in themselves (malum in se, if I may quote Elle Woods), an injustice against a corporation is only wrong insofar as it harms humans. If a government kills someone for no reason, that's horrible in and of itself; but if a government dissolves a corporation, that's only horrible because it threatens the livelihood of its employees and their families (and because by setting that precedent, it puts at risk employees at every other business, too). I challenge the commenters to come up with an injustice against a business that is bad for reasons other than the harms it inflicts on people.

I am not at all advocating that businesses should have no rights. What I am advocating is that they have a different set of rights, and that those rights explicitly make businesses secondary to humans.


  1. I think that you might be confusing the “rights” of a company vs. those of a person. People have rights, including those recognized in the constitution. Other rights, which are not explicit in the constitution, are subject to public discussions -- such as the right to an access to a minimal health care, or FDR’s famous 4 freedoms (aha, your Pavlovian mind now displays Rockwell pictures!).

    I don’t think that corporations have rights. As my uneducated understanding goes, none of the first amendment rights (freedom of religion, free speech -- or the right to carry guns for that matter) apply to entities other than humans. Instead, corporations are protected by certain laws. Just like there are laws that govern the business between two individuals who sign a contract, there’s a law governing the conduct of business of corporations. Obviously, the corporate law contains provisions that are irrelevant to inter-personal business, such as discrimination and harassment, or protection under chapter 11. I don’t think that any of them are rights. True, we may at times personalize a corporation and talk about its rights, the way we say that a computer “thinks”, or that a ball “wants” to fall when dropped. But this is just a colloquial talk.

    So I still believe that “free speech”, referred to by Justice Kennedy in yesterday decision, is of the individuals in the company, rather than that of the legal entity which a company is. I could be wrong, though. The more I think about it the more I believe that the debate of whether or not a company can contribute to a political cause is a red herring: what we should talk about instead is how to limit the influence of people with deep pockets over the political process. Whether or not these people are acting as individuals or as part of corporation is immaterial IMO.

  2. First the easy bit. Page 4 of the Supreme Court's decision explicitly states:

    "The Court has recognized that the First Amendment applies to corporations, e.g., First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U. S. 765, 778, n. 14, and extended this protection to the context of political speech, see, e.g., NAACP v. Button, 371 U. S. 415, 428–429."

    This case was explicitly about the free speech rights of a corporation, not of its individual employees, shareholders or stakeholders.

    I also disagree that this is immaterial. Corporations are usually much more powerful than individuals. Eric Schmidt has a net worth of $4.4 billion (much of that tied in illiquid stocks). Google's operating income alone for 2008 was $6.6 billion, and their revenue was $22b. Eric Schmidt also has personal, moral and other concerns; Google's concerns are solely for their bottom line. This means that Google's speech motivations are fundamentally different than Eric's.

    In other words, both in the motivation to say something and in their ability to say it, corporations are very different than people. The law should recognize this fact.

    But I fully agree that we should keep and even strengthen how much any given entity, human or corporate, can directly or indirectly fund a political campaign.

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