This is the third in a series of articles (see the first and second) analysing corporate personhood and the standards to which we hold corporations. Since Dartmouth v. Woodward in 1819, private corporations have been viewed as having many of the same rights as you or I, prompting one to look at the state of business around them and ask simply, what kind of person are you?
We all grow up and corporations, just like people, become adults and eventually get the urge to settle down, buy a nice place in the suburbs, have kids, grow old and complacent, and then die. At the peak of their game, adult human beings rule the world around them with a seamless balance of knowledge, experience, power, influence and confidence. So too do adult corporations; the long established goliaths of the business world determine the sway of our global economy and while typically, the young upstart corporations are the more innovative ones, it is the well established that hold most of the power. However, if we agree that corporations are persons, then at their adult phase, businesses become some of the most disturbed yet frighteningly untouchable individuals in the world.
If corporations are persons, then publicly traded companies are whores.
Every time I hear about another company going IPO, I giggle a little to myself (Twitter, you filthy minx). How many people do you know that allow themselves to be bought and sold without a care in the world as to who’s involved in the transaction or what they intend to do? Even prostitutes with the lowest of self-esteem still have some limits (granted, I’m making an assumption here… thank god). Yet every day, professional traders, bankers, investors and common folk like you and I jump between the roles of john and pimp as we buy and sell stocks freely on the market.
From the highest-end escorts money can buy in companies like Berkshire Hathaway to the most depraved, under-bridge crack addicts trying to make a quick buck (at one point, I was really pulling for you, Blackberry), corporate whores, much like human ones, come in all shapes and sizes for all different types. Whether conservative, high risk (ewww) or somewhere in between, if you have the cash, then you can take part in the fun and own a bit of one of these strange persons for a while before discarding them as fast as you found them. I’ll only recommend that you exercise caution around those paying dividends.
If corporations are persons, then hostile takeovers are rape.
However, just like regular people, not all corporations are immoral, baseless heathens. From time to time, wedding bells chime and two corporations promise to have and to hold, through insolvency and solvency, until bankruptcy do them part. Yes, mergers and acquisitions can be a wonderful thing (I always cry at M&As) where we celebrate the union of two beautiful companies into a synergistic partnership for optimized business operations. We always wish them the best and hope that we may soon hear the pitter-patter of little spinoff companies rushing to take on the world and prove mom & dad wrong.
Yet partners in these mergers are not always willing. A hostile takeover, or as I like to call it, corporate rape, can be a traumatizing thing, regardless of the outcome of the takeover attempt. The individual targeted will never be the same and unless we stop the aggressor, odds are, they will do it again. Much like the sex offender registry, we really need a database of corporations that have tried to violently overtake those around them. Unfortunately, this list would likely be exhaustive in the corporate world and therefore not serve much of a purpose.
If corporations are persons, then why can’t they go to jail?
Perhaps what is most concerning about the situation is that even through such terrible acts as outlined above, corporate persons cannot go to jail. Since corporations exist almost solely to create profit, by merely slapping them with a fee whenever they break the law, we assume that we are doing enough. However, the issue is that these companies don’t learn anything; there is no process of rehabilitation.
What if instead of a fee, corporations could go to a sort of jail? Imagine if any time they broke the law businesses had to cease regular in-market operations for a duration appropriate to the crime they have committed. Much like humans go through counselling and reintegration, so should corporate persons undergo business therapy and guidance back into the market. Did one of your faulty products kill someone? Let’s ensure that you feel enough remorse so that your goods never suffer shoddy design again. Did you steal ideas or technology from your competitors? Let’s give you the idle time to think about what you’ve done so that you understand that theft will not be tolerated.
If human beings are inherently moral and we still feel the need to put them in jail, then what are we doing allowing these sociopathic financial behemoths the freedom to run amok with nothing more than a financial slap on the wrist each time they commit a crime? If we want better behavior, we may have to impose better punishment.
If you want your customers to start respecting you like a person, then start acting like one.