If You Prick a Corporation, Does It Not Bleed?

Well, no, because as my liberal friends all seem to be indignantly announcing in the aftermath of the Citizens United ruling, corporations aren’t really people! They’re creatures of statute, and “corporate personhood” is just a convenient legal fiction.  Which is fair enough, but also seems to miss the point rather spectacularly. As a practical matter, it is hard to imagine any constitutional liberty that could not be reduced to a hollow joke if we refused to count as an infringement any regulation that nominally targeted only the corporate mechanism for coordinating its exercise.

Having dispensed with the repellent doctrine of corporate personhood, we can happily declare that journalists enjoy full freedom of the press … as long as they don’t plan on using the resources of the New York Times Company or Random House or Comcast, which as mere legal fictions can be barred from using their property to circulate unpatriotic ideas. You’re free to practice your religion without interference — but if it’s an unpopular one, well, let’s hope you don’t expect to send your kids to a religious school or build a church or something, because those tend to involve incorporating. A woman’s right to choose is sacrosanct, but since  clinics and hospitals are mere corporations with no such protection, she’d better hope she knows a doctor who makes house calls. Fill in your own scenarios, it’s easy.

The irony here is that it’s libertarians who are often accused of a myopic obsession with formal liberties rather than their real-world value to people — “the law in its majestic equality” and all that. But this, surely, would be the height of empty formalism — a right to swing your fist that stops at the air.

I think people are obsessing over this because we often think of rights as flowing, at least in part, from respect for our intrinsic human dignity, and it seems equal parts farcical and offensive to suggest that institutions like Exxon and Nike are in the same moral category. As a purely ethical matter, of course corporations as such don’t have rights. As a practical matter, though, rights that wither at the corporate touch won’t do you a whole lot of good in the 21st century.