Edsels and the Enlightenment: the downside of corporate personhood

Occupy Wall Street demonstrator with sign: I won't believe corporations are people until Texas executes one
A headline in Monday’s Austin American-Statesman reported that the Texas Senate is poised for a political shift as four veteran conservative Republican senators step down before the 2012 election cycle. According to the article, those seats could easily go to even more conservative candidates. Beyond these four, the state’s new voting districts, created by an already conservative legislature, could usher in an even more heavily conservative super-majority. Rick Perry may end up looking like the Mitt Romney of Texas Republicans by next year, excoriated for any political impulse that looks toward a collective social goal as opposed to individual taxpayer rights.

George Will, whose elegant prose I enjoy when its content doesn’t irritate me, pointed toward the reason I find protection of individual rights a necessary component of, but insufficient basis for, the existence of government—a protection that Texans already promote aggressively. In a recent column, Will writes that liberalism’s project is “to dilute the concept of individualism, thereby refuting the individual’s zone of sovereignty…. Such an agenda’s premise is that individualism is a chimera, that any individual’s achievements should be considered entirely derivative from society, so that the achievements need not be treated as belonging to the individual.”

Anticipating the argument that corporations, especially through the power of advertising, have too much sway over a gormless public, Will notes that John Kenneth Galbraith first articulated that case in 1958, even as “Ford’s marketers were failing to make a demand for Edsels.” The public, Will implies, can take care of itself.

Finally, Will denounces liberalism’s penchant for “confident social engineering” in favor of conservatism’s insistence on “government humility in the face of society’s creative complexity.”

Moving backward, as is my wont, the idea that liberals are the only social engineers in the political arena strikes me as curious. All laws and regulations, not just liberal ones, seek to shape society to a particular end; refusing to regulate has social consequences as profound as regulating. The idea that there was some Edenic time of self-balancing governments and economies sounds almost quaint—Newtonian thinking in a post-Einsteinian universe.

Quaint, if it weren’t disingenuous. Among the “individuals” that Will is loath to regulate is the corporation, a stance that, to a point, makes perfectly good sense and has a fine American pedigree. Why should individuals lose their constitutional rights when they band together in a common enterprise? It’s a reasonable question, but Will’s reply assumes a static definition of both individualism and corporations. The concept of an individual to whom particular rights accrued developed in a historical context of monarchies and established churches, whose comforts and quarrels were prone to break the backs of the faceless majority that lay beyond their own intimate circles. That the Enlightenment pried apart individual human worth and dignity from wealth and social status is its crowning glory. That its definition of “individual human” was grossly reductive is an ongoing misfortune, imprisoning those deemed less than fully human in a continuing serfdom, unworthy of the full panoply of rights.

As a nation, we have, most of us, slowly come to see those prison bars and to see that we tossed not only races, genders, and legitimate ways of being, but also whole species and ecosystems into an airless, putrid place. Politically and culturally, Americans have more fully taken in the view of a society based on universal individual rights for which Enlightenment philosophy cleared the way. Yet we continue to distort its essential insight—that every individual has an equal right to the pursuit of happiness—when the legal fiction granting personhood to corporate structures becomes destructive of the very individualism it purports to uphold. Indeed, today’s transnational corporations bear a suspicious resemblance to the great, lumbering bureaucracies (monarchies, established churches) whose primary goal was self-preservation and against which the French and American revolutions were fought.

In his last post Martin cited a New Yorker story about Don Colcord, the owner of the Apothecary Shoppe in Nucla, Colorado. Colcord prefers to be called a druggist, whom he defines as “the guy who repairs your watch and glasses. A pharmacist is the guy who works at Walmart.” Colcord repairs a lot of things besides watches and glasses, from chronic medical conditions to broken hearts. His is the only pharmacy for an area of 4,000 square miles, an area with no hospital. Much of Nucla’s population lives well below the poverty level. Until recently, there were a few other independent drug stores in the area, but the combined pressures exerted by insurance companies, big chains, and mail-order pharmacies when Medicare Part D came into effect in 2006 forced them to close—along with more than 500 other independent rural pharmacies nationwide that couldn’t order at the volume level of big chains. In order to keep his Apothecary Shoppe running, Colcord has had to spend his own savings at several critical times.

There’s a lot Nucla lacks, but in its druggist it has someone who sees the humanity of every person he serves, from illegal immigrants to N.R.A. members to the four transgendered people (none of whom live in Nucla) for whom he compounds medicine. He treats them all, whether or not they have the money to pay him. The generosity of his spirit is something that infuses the community and makes its way back to him: a drifter, an older man, settled in the neighboring town and, mistrusting doctors, relied on Colcord’s expertise in treating his high blood pressure and other ailments, one of which was chronic loneliness. When he neared death fifteen or so years later, it was Colcord who stayed with him, arranged for hospice care, organized a funeral mass for him, and went through his effects. He found that in his will the old drifter had left him $300,000—coincidentally, almost exactly enough money to cover the outstanding debts run up by customers who had been unable to pay.

As an individual and a businessman Colcord enacts a kind of sovereignty (the trait Will so admires) that becomes less likely when transnational corporations are defined as persons. When Walmart, to choose a convenient demon, is considered an individual with rights, the kind of sovereignty Walmart practices is based on profit. Let me hasten to say that I have nothing against profitable businesses; I rely on them in virtually every arena of my life. But the culture that arises from these super-sized “individuals” is one in which generosity of spirit and empathy become secondary—and often undermine—the reign of the profit of the few. A society governed by the values of enormous corporations must despise the apparently inefficient operations of a business like the Apothecary Shoppe.

As the heroes and villains of the Enlightenment sought to uncover the treasure buried in every individual (especially white male ones), cultures arose reflecting the shared values of those individuals, from Ben Franklin to Robespierre, from the American Revolution to the Reign of Terror. Sovereignty in and of itself is to be deplored if it leads to tyranny. When the values that drive successful transnational corporations predominate, the culture that arises among those “persons” is not value-neutral or necessarily benign, as so many business fundamentalists—so many of them in the Texas Republican party—seem to believe.

What we’re reading
W. S. Merwin, The Shadow of Sirius
Martin: Calvin Trillin, Trillin on Texas

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One Response to Edsels and the Enlightenment: the downside of corporate personhood

  1. don colcord says:

    thanks for your nice thoughts

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