BRICKS TO BABEL: Of corporations and men

Matt Haemmerle

The recent Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allows for unlimited spending by corporations and labor unions on political campaigns.

With this decision, America marches into uncharted territory. As a matter of law, the Supreme Court decision may or may not have been correct, but as a matter of policy and common sense, the result will surely be negative.

Essentially, corporations have been given the same rights as individuals as specified in the Constitution, including free speech. What follows is that corporations are now free to spend as much as they want on political candidates who potentially could be in a position to influence U.S. domestic and foreign policy.

Washington Post columnist George F. Will states that as “individuals,” corporations should not be denied their freedom of speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment. 

The same article says that the Supreme Court decision has “provoked an edifying torrent of hyperbole,” but the consequences of this decision may prove to be less hyperbolic than a real danger to the fundamental nature of American democracy.   

The very premise that corporations are people is acutely wrong. 

An editorial in The New York Times addresses the specious assertion that corporations are just like people entitled to the same First Amendment rights. “It is a fundamental misreading of the Constitution to say that these artificial constructs have the same right to spend money on politics as ordinary Americans have to speak out in support of a candidate,” 

The Harvard Business Review asserts that allowing corporations to play a decisive role in shaping “the rules of the game” regarding legal business practice would be equivalent to putting psychopathic inmates in control of the asylum. 

This is because if corporations were actual people, as the Supreme Court has ruled, their behavior would be described as mentally insane. 

But how is this true? 

In 1970, economist Milton Friedman wrote that the “one and only social responsibility of business [is] to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.” Friedman contrasted corporations with the individual and his multitude of responsibilities – those “to his family, his conscious, his feelings of charity, his church, his clubs, his city, his country.” His basic point was that CEOs shouldn’t go around imposing their notions of social responsibility on others. 

The only interest that could possibly unite the disparate shareholders of a large corporation (which acts more like a machine motivated by profit than an individual) is making money. Hence, that should be the focus of corporations – not politics.

Corporations should be treated separately from individuals, and rules must be prescribed that impose restrictions on corporate political activity. 

There is a long tradition of treating corporations separately dating back to the days of the Theodore Roosevelt. Corporations are not allowed to vote, and for generations the federal and state governments have restricted corporate campaign spending. 

Perhaps the most unfortunate result of the Supreme Court’s ruling is the erosion of American democracy. As if special interest groups weren’t doing enough to distort the democratic process, now big corporations, both domestic and foreign, have increased political clout. 

Special interest groups and corporations are subversive in that they have a disproportionate amount of influence and control over issues which are attained through inherently undemocratic means. 

Policies are being formulated and supported by politicians who are swayed not by what is best for the nation or who has the most persuasive argument, but by those who have the most money. 

In oligarchic fashion, special interest groups are buying politicians in exchange for the advancement of their own agenda, and big corporations threaten to join their ranks.

The problem lies in that free speech is no longer “free.” Speech costs money and money corrupts. 

Whether because of human nature, anatomy or original sin, people are inherently selfish and lazy. 

It is human greed that should be regulated, and mixing more money with politics doesn’t help. 

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling exacerbates political corruption and the “I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine” loyalty system that already pervades Capitol Hill. 

As our democracy is being undermined, everything is business as usual in Washington.       


Matt Haemmerle is a sophomore political science and economics major from Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.  He can be reached at [email protected].