There has been a fair amount of talk lately about the nature of corporate personhood and the destructive effects it can have on the political process. The WolfPAC, a political action organization which is (somewhat ironically) collecting money in order to lobby governments to create limits for the amount of money that can be donated to political causes.
I agree that there exists a desperate need for some kind of counterbalance for the undue influence that money has on the political process, but I also recognize that this is a complex issue. In particular I am concerned that the way in which WolfPAC advocates for an amendment to the constitution which would explicitly state that corporations are not persons, and should not be granted the rights and privileges of persons.
While in the current corporate stranglehold on political power in the United States certainly needs to be addressed, I think precaution is needed in any legislation or amendments which addresses the nature of personhood. In particular, I think that a bit of futurist thinking is highly relevant here and should be taken into account in any discussion of the nature of personhood.
Corporations are not people, but some day they might be and we should be prepared for that.
Corporations are artificial entities created by law. Primarily, they exist to shelter their investors from liability for actions of the corporation (thus the limited part you see in some business names). In the eyes of the law, a corporation is a separate person who is responsible for their own actions. Thus, if you are somehow injured by a corporation, and you decide to sue, the corporation itself can be held responsible while you cannot take the individual shareholders to court.
Over time there has been a tension in the law trying to establish what rights and priveledges should be afforded to legal persons like corporations. While they have a right to sue and be sued in court, they have not historically been granted the right to free speech. This is what changed in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case which opened the door to unlimited campaign financing by corporations in the form of political action committees.
In response to this, WolfPAC and others have suggested that an amendment should be made to constitution to state the following explicity:
Artificial entities, such as corporations, limited liability companies, and other entities, established by the laws of any State, the United States, or any foreign state shall have no rights under this Constitution (source)
I think that adding such a constitutional amendment to explicitly remove any possibility of inalienable rights from non-natural persons is a dangerous precedent to set. While we currently live in an age when computers do not yet have the kinds of abilities that we would associate with a person (ie free-will), it may not be long before we are dealing with such entities. The long legal history of corporate personhood leaves the door open to finding ways to give rights to artificial entities, be they corporate or silicate. If we close that door, and enshrine a rule which states that artificial entities cannot have personhood, the consequences could be dire.
If and when one of the many projects to model the human brain succeeds, and we manage to invent a computer which can reproduce key human qualities (free thought, free will, emotion etc…), we must have the legal ability to determine what rights such an entity should have and give those rights to them. The legal question of the rights on a purely artificial person also extends to questions about the rights of simulated persons. If one day we can recreate you entirely within a computer should you not maintain the rights and privileges of a person?
I am not by any means sure that such artificial intelligences or simulations should indeed be considered persons and given the rights a person should have, but I am 100% sure that such entities can never be persons. We must leave room in the law for legitimate persons, which may need to one day carry not only the legalistic rights of corporations, but perhaps one day the inalienable rights of natural citizens as well.
Serious legal people who wear suits and squint at legislation all day long will probably laugh at such an argument. Corporate personhood is running roughshod over democracy, lets not get off in the weeds worrying about theoretical artificial intelligence, right? But this is exactly the time to think about the deep implications that changes to the law could have, the beauty of the US constitution is that it is a document written almost 250 years ago and is still somehow relevant today.
I think organizations like the WolfPAC that want to try to put some limits on the power of money in politics are working for a good cause, but if they want to do it by changing the legal definition of personhood, they need to give a lot of thought to the future first.