Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Supreme Court and Corporate Personhood

The recent Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) isn't about corporations being able to give money to a candidate that can then be used by that candidate to pay for a campaign for public office. My understanding is that people and organizations (including companies) have been able to do that with certain limitations for many years. Also, groups of citizens have long been able to pool their resources to influence policies and elections, just as individuals can attempt to do so.

This ruling grants the same rights to any corporation or group that an individual has. These are not groups of citizens united in a common
political goal. Moreover, big companies have comparatively unlimited financial resources to draw upon to influence elections. Companies can now create and implement their own support for a candidate. This opens the doors for companies to not just contribute to a political campaign, but to pay for their own ads, infomercials, documentaries, signs, etc. to aid a given candidacy or to hinder another -- without limitation.

What this will also serve to do is politicize the board of directors of companies. That isn't to say that members don't have political views already or that those views probably already lean to the right. But if the company is going to spend tens of millions of dollars to influence an important election, that board is going to have to decide which candidate that is, which is a political decision that defines the political stance of the whole company. And that is a fundamental change, since every company in America that wants to influence government has now become as much a political entity as a financial one.

Generally I come down on the "let the marketplace of ideas sort things out" side of things and approve of judgments that open up free speech for individuals. In this case however I do not agree with the Supreme Court. Employees of companies can and do have every right to voice their support for a candidate, but to give that same right to a company is granting too many personal rights to an organization. Corporations should not as entities be entitled to the same rights and protections as individuals. Prohibiting corporations from freely influencing elections is a layer of protection we individuals have from companies being able to in effect buy our government. 

Consider this. In 2009 companies in the financial securities business were able to afford to pay out an estimated $18.4 billion in bonuses to their executives -- executives that were at the helms of their companies during one of the largest financial collapses in history. That is just bonus money. Imagine what companies might be willing to spend to put into office someone who will legislate consistently in the favor of that company. Which is to say nothing of how much whole industries might spend to install a completely cooperative Congress and President. And why not do it? Think of how long term corporate profits can be insured by a continuing investment in friendly government. It is almost worth it at any cost.

Here is an excerpt from the dissenting opinion on this case, written by Justice Stevens:
At bottom, the Court's opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.
You can read the whole opinion including the dissenting opinion here: (be warned, this is a very long document)

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