The Relative Comment

soothing waves of relativity

Are all persons created equal?

with 2 comments

Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal. At the time, of course, that meant white men. Then it meant black men. Then it meant women. Men became a malleable word; we could say that all persons are created equal. But now we have new categories of persons.

Namely, Corporations. That corporations were given individual rights of persons is not new. It came about in the early 19th century, and corporate persons have been further broadening his/her (are corporations gendered?) rights since then. The corporate person comes in to great conflict with another category of person to increasingly build rights in the US government over the last 150 years, according to Joel Bakan in today’s NY Times: children.

A clash between these two newly created legal entities — children and corporations — was, perhaps, inevitable. Century-of-the-child reformers sought to resolve conflicts in favor of children. But over the last 30 years there has been a dramatic reversal: corporate interests now prevail. Deregulation, privatization, weak enforcement of existing regulations and legal and political resistance to new regulations have eroded our ability, as a society, to protect children.

Bakan has familiar complaints about the corporate impacts on children, such as the role of advertising to children regarding junk food and media and violence. But he also includes two other movements of the corporate person that threaten childhood: the increasing push for childhood medication and the desire to market more psychotropic drugs towards children; and the increased quantities of toxic chemicals, not just environmentally (though definitely environmentally), but in toys and products marketed to kids. The world of chemicals in the US is highly unregulated, and harmful exposure is a regular, and serious, threat.

Bakan concludes: As Nelson Mandela has said, “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” By that measure, our current failure to provide stronger protection of children in the face of corporate-caused harm reveals a sickness in our societal soul. The good news is that we can — and should — work as citizens, through democratic channels and institutions, to bring about change.

I struggle to make sense of corporate person-hood. How we can treat a corporation equally with a person in the courts absolutely boggles my mind. But it is the case, and we have survived such legal standing as a nation for 180 years or so. Corporations being protected by the First Amendment may be stupid, but it is not the harbinger of our nation’s decline.

And yet, children are fatter than ever. More children are medicated at earlier ages than ever. The amount of toxic chemicals in a child’s environment is greater than ever, and such chemicals pose more risk to public health than ever.  Are these the result of greater protections of corporate rights? Or are parents to blame? Or declining cultural values? Maybe they’re all to blame. But I doubt they are all equally to blame. It’s possible, and fair, to put pressure on parents to protect their children from too much advertising. And arguing the decline of moral and cultural values as cause for societies problems presumes that everyone has the same idea of what that means, which is simply not the case. Bad parenting is a problem, declining values (I suppose) could be a problem (though this argument makes my stomach wretch), but these things do not account for the increasing risks to children.

In this light, Bakan makes an interesting and important comparison. How can we balance corporate individual rights with the rights of those who cannot protect themselves? Sometimes, corporations come into direct conflict with children, right? If we continue to corporatize our public school education for example, corporations will continue receiving essentially free-access to children. If corporations want to change history or alter science to benefit his/her own image, is that right protected by the First Amendment? Even at the cost of an education based on facts? I would hope not, but how could we say no?


Written by Christopher ZF

August 22, 2011 at 10:54

Posted in business, education

2 Responses

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  1. I think you are too unfair to corporate personhood. In fact, recognizing corporate personhood was a great development for our country. We need to understand that in this sense corporate means in legally recognized gathering of individuals, whether that is GM, GE, or Greenpeace. Each of them with legal rights because they are a corporate collection of people. For more info, check out

    redhead in rapid

    August 22, 2011 at 13:13

  2. True. I’m painting unfairly, but corporations are also protected under the first amendment, and that seems really problematic to me. because the first amendment protections of a group of individuals as one entity, can cause, in my estimation, real problems.
    As I say in the post though (or should have, maybe), I don’t think the concept of corporate personhood is particularly problematic (it has worked fine for about 180 years), but I don’t think it is a good idea to expand that idea too far into areas that become logical conclusions of conflating personhood with people’s rights, i.e. the first amendment.

    Also the link you provided says the following, which seems a little ridiculous:

    “It is quite simply one of the greatest achievements of civilization that we reached a level of sophistication high enough that we could not only conceive, but theorize and enforce the concept of an institution that is, actually, nothing but an abstract concept (there is no such thing as “Wal-Mart.” There are buildings and people and bank accounts, but “Wal-Mart” doesn’t exist. Except as a fiction. As a law professor of mine used to say “I’ve never had lunch with a corporation.”).
    It’s not just a great achievement of civilization because it’s a beautiful concept. It’s a great achievement of civilization because without it all of civilization would collapse. Every collective human endeavor now includes the creation of non-people persons. Literally. Imagine what would happen if every corporation and state vanished overnight as a legal construct (but leaving all the buildings and stuff intact). Society. Would. Collapse.”


    August 22, 2011 at 13:26

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