Tweed Lion

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion reads the paper

Monkey Business: The New Dictatorial Corporation

“Extra! Extra! Deeply religious, conservative male, troubled by Hobby Lobby opinion!”

Yes, I’m very religious, very without a uterus, very often opposed to abortion, and still very troubled by the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision. Within this ruling I see less the threat of government forcing me to worship golden calves or kill fetuses, and more the real and continued march to oligarchy. We might be so scared of dictatorial government that we create, even embrace, something as powerful and sinister: nearly omnipotent corporations, fully vested with rights and political influence, but without checks, balances, criminal liabilities, or being subject to the will of the people.

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The real question isn’t whether or not this is a fair point, but why isn’t Viagra bacon flavored already?

Before you dismiss me as a dirty hippie, let me be clear: This does not mean I am against corporations. Far from it. I love corporations. I think corporations are brilliant. Three cheers for corporations.

But to me the genius of the corporation has always been that it is distinct from the person or people behind it. Thus Acme is free to sell widgets, but should a widget be defective and kill someone in a freak-widget accident, Mr. and Mrs. Acme will not be thrown in jail, and will not lose their house. Through the power of the corporation, they are free to stand up and say, “We are not Acme; Acme is a completely different entity from us and only Acme alone can be held accountable.”

This is a valuable thing to be able to stand up and say. Without this the costs and liabilities associated with entering many markets would be so prohibitive that we would all live in squalor. What sane people would start a car company if they themselves were going to be held criminally and civilly liable for all mishaps? Who would provide gas, water, electricity, kitchen knives, Hot n’ Ready pizzas, or any of the other potentially dangerous things we daily harness to live like kings?

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Even in the most litigious and incarcerating nation in the world, no car company executive or shareholder will lose her/his house or go to jail for this mess.

Yes, the corporation is a godsend and the very thing that makes it so wonderful is that it places a shield or veil between the enterprise and the person.

So with this as a preamble, perhaps others can see why it is now so disturbing to have another ruling from the Supreme Court that says, “You can be separable or inseparable from your entity depending on what works best for you.”

Put simply, if Mr. and Mrs. Acme create a defective product that kills your child, the presumption is they are distinct from the corporation. Their pockets and freedom are safe. But if they are Jehovah’s Witnesses and refuse to allow the corporation to provide coverage for the blood transfusion to save your kid’s life, then they and the corporation are one. Their speech just happens to be the speech of what should be a completely separate entity. Their religious beliefs happen to coincide perfectly with the corporation’s beliefs. (What a coincidence!)

If this kind of commingling between the enterprise and the personal were going on with cash or most other assets, the corporate veil would be pierced and the Acmes would lose the incredible shield the state places between them and everyone else. But apparently personal rights, preferences, and beliefs may be commingled at will with no negative consequences. Thus, in addition to the shield, which protects, the state has also given the people behind the corporation a sword, which can strike out at those who might happen to disagree with their bosses.

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Notes from law school.

This sort of all-the-benefits-and-none-of-the-rights-and-responsibilities is so often anathema to many Americans, but here because the granting of power is inline with what many people believe and want, we seem to be missing the danger.

The morale of the story: if you want your religious rights to be protected, or your inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (which one might reasonably assume includes the right to basic health care of your and your doctor’s choice), you had better become a powerful corporation and not work for one.

This isn’t to say that I think any business owner should be compelled to act against her or his religious beliefs. I don’t. Insomuch as your religious beliefs don’t put others in danger, I say, “Go crazy nuts.” What I’m saying is what most religious beliefs say: At some point you have to choose between your discipleship and a benefit the world around you has to offer. If you want your company to be a reflection of your person, then you should probably pick a legal entity that allows you and the company to commingle like crazy. If you want your company to be entirely separate from your person, then by all means. But if you want it both ways, all of the benefits and none of the responsibilities, take a hike.

A supporter of the proposed lower Manhattan Muslim cultural center and mosque holds a sign in front of the proposed site New York

To which I would add: “In it’s appropriate legal entity!” (I make the most accurate and worst signs.)

None of this is to say that I know the proper balance of rights and religion in a complex society. I don’t. And I don’t mean to imply that this reasoning should take away concern from the religious or be the most valid argument for those who see this as a women’s rights issue. It’s not. This is a boring, dispassionate, legal argument, that really doesn’t do justice anyone’s wrought emotions–entirely removed from the deep complexities of the issue. But that shortfall is also it’s virtue. The law has provided us with low-hanging fruit. We don’t have to do the difficult sorting. There was an easy and clear legal path.

For hundreds of years it was clear that corporations were entirely distinct from the owners of the corporation. Case closed. Done. Easy breazy. Until very recently.

 

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Published on July 1, 2014 by Tags: , , .