An economic historian debunks the originalist rhetoric of Citizens United

Justin Fox, on his Harvard Business Review blog, has an interesting take on the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. He interviews Brian Murphy, a history professor at Baruch College who studies the economics and politics of early America. The original laws of incorporation, Murphy says, were developed to organize civic organizations and municipal governments, and later were applied to economic enterprises, partly as a way to dilute their growing influence. “The intent of these laws is therefore the opposite of what the Court asserted in Citizens United,” he says.

Let me put it this way: the Founders did not confuse Boston's Sons of Liberty with the British East India Company. They could distinguish among different varieties of association — and they understood that corporate personhood was a legal fiction that was limited to a courtroom. It wasn't literal. Corporations could not vote or hold office. They held property, and to enable a shifting group of shareholders to hold that property over time and to sue and be sued in court, they were granted this fictive personhood in a limited legal context.

Early Americans had a far more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of corporations than the Court gives them credit for. They were much more comfortable with retaining pre-Revolutionary city or school charters than with creating new corporations that would concentrate economic and political power in potentially unaccountable institutions. When you read Madison in particular, you see that he wasn't blindly hostile to banks during his fight with Alexander Hamilton over the Bank of the United States. Instead, he's worried about the unchecked power of accumulations of capital that come with creating a class of bankers.

The view of corporations as “persons” was meant for legal convenience and economic risk reduction, Murphy argues, and it was the courts, not lawmakers, who started blurring the distinction between the rights of individuals and corporations.

Given the public’s overwhelmingly negative reaction to Citizens United, it seems that Americans continue to understand the difference between corporations and individuals, their purpose in society, and their rights. Americans haven’t grown out of touch with the fundamental values of the Constitution—the Court has.


 

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