Human Rights Should be Restricted to Human Beings

I’m not arguing against proper treatment of animals and, in fact, I’m not arguing about animals at all. I’m arguing against the extension of human rights to corporations which began at least in spirit as long ago as Abraham Lincoln’s successful arguments before the Illinois Supreme Court when they decided that state-chartered corporations were not bound by local laws and ordinances if those restricted the ‘rights’ of corporations under their charters. Since both local political entities and state-chartered corporations are creatures of the state government, this wasn’t an illogical decision, and it may have been the right technical decision. If so, a legislature dedicated to a democratic republic should have changed the law.

Somewhere, Bertrand de Jouvenal, a classical liberal himself, points out: when General Motors have the same rights as you, they have far more rights than you. And the use of plural pronouns for General Motors isn’t just a European eccentricity, it’s a recognition of the true nature of a corporation. It’s a gathering of human beings for a common purpose. In the United States, such gatherings are usually chartered by a state government or the national government. Far too often, corporations are no longer gatherings so much as they’re shields to allow morally irresponsible investors and executives to benefit from amoral behavior punctuated by increasingly common acts which are downright despicable.

In From Cottage to Workstation, Allan C. Carlson presents evidence that various sorts of cooperative arrangements worked as well in the early years of the Industrial Revolution as industrial and financial corporations. It’s not clear why corporations overwhelmed other arrangements, though some partnerships survive and even prosper in some parts of the American economy. It’s not clear, but I hold the theory that corporations have one major advantage over other sorts of ownership arrangements: individual decision-makers and passive investors are shielded from personal moral responsibility for their actions. In many cases, they’re shielded from personal legal responsibility.

I don’t believe that either corporate executives or government officials are smart enough to be running a vast, century-long conspiracy but it has worked out just as well as if it were a managed conspiracy — call it the sinister invisible hand if you wish. That ‘unconscious conspiracy’ reached its plateau with the New Deal of the Roosevelt administration which made the United States safe for large corporations by making individuals dependent upon the Federal government, ‘freeing’ Americans from dependencies upon family, neighborhoods, church communities, fraternal associations, and so forth. Americans were ‘free’ to move wherever a corporation moved the jobs to. Without Social Security, they would have remained close to the families they depended upon, but we have all decided we’d prefer to be dependent upon the Federal government rather than our families and neighbors and church communities.

Pat Buchanan, a moral man dedicated to the defense of the American middle-class and working-class, has written a good discussion of the dismantling of the US corporate economy. As Mr. Buchanan points out, we Americans enjoyed some very pleasant decades as an alliance of corporate interests with our national government produced prosperity without taking away the freedoms Americans truly desired and without acting aggressively to destroy families and local communities. We seem to have reached the end of the line in this regard as corporate decision-makers are finding it hard to generate the profits to satisfy Wall Street and to pay themselves huge bonuses — for a while, they’ve been generating false profits by selling American productive assets and jobs to countries with cheaper labor costs. They may have now reached the point where they have to outsource all professional jobs and all but their own management jobs to keep the scheme going. They may have also reached the point where many of these companies are only nominally American. If all the work, including management, is being done in Shanghai, formal incorporation in Delware may be about as meaningful as formal incorporation in Aruba by an American insurance company or bank. Let the government of Aruba try to tighten up regulations or increase taxes and we would see how meaningful corporate domicile is when assets and workers are somewhere else.

Many of us Americans have realized in recent years that our country is about to hit some sort of bottom. I suspect we’re in a situation more analogous to the collapse of the Roman Republic into the Empire rather than the collapse of the Roman Empire 500 years or so later. This sort of a collapse from a democratic republic into an empire was made possible by the conversion of assets once owned by creatures of flesh and blood into corporate assets and to the corresponding conversion of all economic activities into public activities. These conversions exposed all American economic activities to taxation even services once provided by mothers to their children, by adult children to their parents, by neighbors (perhaps in exchange for a couple beers or a bag of home-grown peaches), and so forth.

In any case, this has all become possible because of the extension of hard-won human rights to corporations. There are some who call themselves conservatives while being right-wing liberals and those often glorify the Supreme Court of the 1920s for making it official that corporations have human rights in the U.S. The left-wing liberals prefer to glorify the next period of government activism, the New Deal. In fact, the Judicial activism of the 1920s on behalf of corporations and the Executive/Legislative activism of the 1930s on the behalf of the welfare state were two wings in a single movement, however unconscious on the part of those who belonged to those wings.

I doubt if Americans have the heart or the guts to force any true reforms upon our country. Given that our productive assets have moved overseas and the government has all the powers of a police state, there probably is little we can do to stop our final collapse to a full-fledged empire. To refuse to accept our roles as citizens of the American Empire would be the same as accepting our role as impoverished creatures unable to feed ourselves or to supply ourselves with clothing or good shelter. But we can be happy to know the number of millionaires and even billionaires has exploded in the United States and in the world as a whole.

Our parents and grandparents shouldn’t have allowed corporations to grab hard-won human rights. Seeing the early stages of decay into an empire, we should have had the guts to fight the situation when we could have won that battle. And, yet, those were pleasant years as we slid down the slippery slope. True it was that even the most decent of Doris Day movies was enticing us to live a life-style a little better than was healthy for us and the Cleavers lived oddly apart from any relatives in a town that seemed to have been manufactured rather than being a result of some human history. But we didn’t have enough money to harm ourselves too much and extended families and other local communities were dissolving slowly and mostly in the interests of a better climate in California or a good job in Westchester County. That didn’t seem so evil.

Few are the commentators or public leaders ready to acknowledge that a moral economy is dependent upon the decision-makers being morally responsible for their actions. We shouldn’t have granted those hard-won human rights to corporations.

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2 Comments on “Human Rights Should be Restricted to Human Beings”

  1. unitedcats Says:

    In 1979 the US Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the same right of freedom of speech as individuals. It still puzzles constitutional scholars to this day, since most agree that corporations do not and should not have “rights” in any way analogous to human rights. It’s been downhill since 😦

  2. Loyd Fueston Says:

    Thank you for a correction to an overly general statement, even if you didn’t say your were correcting me. The Supreme Court decisions of the 1920s gave basic property rights to corporations, though that had been developing over time. I wasn’t aware of the 1979 decision though I might have read about it at some time. In a logical sense, giving the right of free speech to corporations certainly brings the entire issue to a new level of absurdity.


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