Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Problem Of Corporate Personhood

Over the last several years, we have seen a steady escalation of businesses asserting rights and privileges which are normally reserved for individuals.  A number of years ago, that extended into the realm of freedom of speech, and other areas where corporations are gradually asserting the same rights and freedoms as individual citizens as well.  

The most recent example of this popped up in the form of a company called "Hobby Lobby" making a big fuss about providing contraceptive access through its health care benefits.  What is interesting here is that Hobby Lobby is a sizeable company, and yet it is making this objection based on the company president's personal beliefs. 

I can appreciate that the owners of the company have specific beliefs that they hold very deeply.  However, when they are making decisions of this nature, they are effectively imposing their beliefs and morality on their employees who may or may not share the same set of beliefs.  While the sole proprietor of a company may make such decisions without affecting the rights and freedoms of others, this is not the case with Hobby Lobby.  Instead, what we have is the owners of the company claiming that their companies have the same rights as they do with respect to religious beliefs:
Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., Mardel Inc. and their owners, the Green family, argue for-profit businesses — not just religious groups — should be allowed to seek an exception if the law violates their religious beliefs. The owners approve of most forms of artificial birth control, but not those that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg — such as an IUD or the morning-after pill.
There's a problem here.  How can a business claim to have "religious beliefs"?  Last I checked, the people who run a business can worship as they see fit, but I cannot see for a minute how an abstract entity such as a business can be held to have such beliefs.  A company ultimately exists to transact business - no more, and no less than that.

While the ownership of a company may well set policies within the company which are in line with their personal beliefs, it is more than a bit of a reach to assert that the company itself has those personal beliefs.  It is an even greater reach to assert that a company has the right to assert that it is protected in holding such beliefs.

Today, another dimension of the Hobby Lobby story came to light:
Having heard this, and always wanting to be certain of what I write about, I just called the Marlboro hobby lobby and asked whether it would be stocking any Chanukah merchandise. I was told it would not. When I asked why, the answer - verbatim - was: 
"Because Mr. Green is the owner of the company, he's a Christian, and those are his values"
FYI, I would guess that, in a five mile radius around that Marlboro store, a solid one-third of all residents are Jewish. But, then again, what is the difference? Since the reason Hobby Lobby won't sell Chanukah goods is unrelated to how many Jews are in the area, it wouldn't matter if the percentage were higher or lower. 
The reason is that Mr. green's Christian "values" preclude him selling anything related to a Jewish holiday - not just Chanukah, but Passover too, based on the call I just made to corporate headquarters.
I have a great many Christian friends and acquaintances. And I can honestly say that I don't know even one who would ever see excluding Jews as having anything to do with Christian "values". But, evidently, Hobby Lobby owner David Green does.
While there could be a legitimate business reason for not stocking material related to a particular holiday, it seems interesting that the reason given here is Mr. Green's alleged "Christian values".  I think  that this tells us more about the motivations behind Hobby Lobby's demands in court.

At the end of the day, a Corporation is still a business.  Commercial transactions carried out in a business are quite apart from the religious convictions of the people who work in the context of a business.  For example, as an atheist, I might personally find it ridiculous to sell religious texts in a bookstore.  However, I have no right to refuse to sell those books as a member of the store's staff.

Similarly, though, the business has no right to insist that I purchase one of those texts for myself.  To do so would be a clear case of the business infringing upon my personal freedoms.  This applies whether we are talking about transactions in the context of the daily conduct of business with customers, or the business of hiring employees who work in the company's facilities.

Businesses exist within the broader context of society, but they are not active parts of society.  Rather, they are products of society themselves.  To grant them the same rights and privileges as individual citizens creates a serious problem.  Just as various "free trade" agreements have granted businesses the arbitrary right to sue a nation's government for acting in a manner which goes contrary to the company's perceived self-interest prevents a government from acting in the defence of its citizens, granting a business civil rights equivalent to those enjoyed by an individual citizen distorts the fabric of civil society.

When we allow businesses to become "full members of society", we create a situation which gives them a disproportionate say in the execution of government.  Likely to the detriment of individual citizens.

3 comments:

Rene said...

It does get worse than that. Some of Canada's major corporations discover and inflict bizarre "ideologies" upon their workforce. One of Canada's top-five major insurance providers has embraced a form of pseudo-scientific psycho-hypnotic "motivational" quack ideology identified as "brilliant service". Said company foists such belief system on its employees to the point of absurd obsession, going so far as to measure employees apparent commitment to its proclaimed "ideology" as a key indicator in performance evaluations. "Brilliant service" is an offshoot of pseudo-scientific motivational training fad promoted by self-professed Neuro-Linguistic Programming Masters, apparently prevalent with many businesses in the UK.

If you google Wikipedia :

"Bandler and Grinder claim that the skills of exceptional people can be "modeled" using NLP methodology, then those skills can be acquired by anyone. Bandler and Grinder also claim that NLP can treat problems such as phobias, depression, habit disorder, psychosomatic illnesses, myopia, allergy, common cold and learning disorders, often in a single session. NLP has been adopted by some hypnotherapists and in seminars marketed to business and government."

"Reviews of empirical research find that NLP's core tenets are poorly supported. The balance of scientific evidence reveals NLP to be a largely discredited pseudoscience. Scientific reviews show it contains numerous factual errors, and fails to produce the results asserted by proponents. NLP has had a consequent decline in prevalence since the 1970s. Criticisms go beyond lack of empirical evidence for effectiveness, saying NLP exhibits pseudoscientific characteristics, title, concepts and terminology as well. NLP serves as an example of pseudoscience for facilitating the teaching of scientific literacy at the professional and university level. NLP also appears on peer reviewed expert-consensus based lists of discredited interventions. In research designed to identify the "quack factor" in modern mental health practice, Norcross et al. list NLP as possibly or probably discredited for treatment of behavioral problems. Norcross et al. list NLP in the top ten most discredited interventions and Glasner-Edwards and Rawson list NLP therapy as "certainly discredited"."

Such obsessive "ideological" tomfoolery has wrecked havoc with its own professed business objectives - providing quality service to customers - through "ideological" purges of its ranks, driving out otherwise talented employees. I myself was subject to such " ideological" purge after more than a decade of service, for allegedly demonstrating insufficient enthusiasm for the contrived company "ideology".

Rene said...

Now I did submit a complaint at the time pertaining to an "oppressive ideological regime" being foisted on company employees by a major Canadian corporation to the NDP, particularly since said corporation was then in the process of purchasing one of Quebec's major insurance providers, and would subsequently inflict such "ideological regime" on the hapless employees acquired with such purchase. I was of the mistaken belief that inasmuch as the NDP constituted the majority of parliamentary representation in Quebec and claimed to represent the interests of salaried employees, such matters of "ideological" corporate abuse by non-unionized firms and corporate concentration in a key economic sector may be of concern to it.

Apparently they shrugged off my concerns....

MgS said...

Rene,

I'm sorry to hear about the misadventures in corporate silliness that you experienced.

A couple of thoughts:

1) Given the current government, the odds of a complaint to the NDP going anywhere are very limited.

2) Did the acquisition you reference involve the federal government?

3) Have you considered going after the company for wrongful dismissal?