Guest editorial from Eric Fink:
The YES! Weekly blog (1/08/2013) reports on Winston-Salem City Council member Dan Besse's opposition to a proposed resolution concerning the legal status of corporations. Having worked with Occupy Winston-Salem and other groups on this issue, I wish to offer a response to Besse's objections.
First, Besse argues that the city council should not even consider the proposed resolution, because it is somehow beyond the purview of local government. Accepting the premise that "city councils should limit their actions to matters that directly affect their mandated responsibilities," it by no means supports the conclusion that the city council should ignore this issue.
The corrosive effect of corporate power on democracy is very much a local concern. Unrestricted corporate money distorts the electoral process, including elections for local government bodies like city councils. Unfettered corporate influence distorts public policy, including policy on core matters of local government responsibility like land use, transportation and education.
Given the direct and substantial impact of corporate power on local politics and policy, it is absolutely proper for local government representatives to educate themselves and the people they serve, and to speak up in defense of democracy.
Second, Besse cites various progressive legal scholars who have suggested that broad-brush criticisms of "corporate personhood" are misplaced. These are scholars I greatly admire, and whose work I greatly respect. In speaking publicly on this issue to groups like Occupy Winston-Salem, I have made similar points. Yet once again, Besse moves from a sound premise to an erroneous conclusion.
The valid and crucial point that professors Greenfield, Epps and Witt have made is that people — real flesh and blood people — frequently join together and take collective action on important political and social issues. But these organized groups — even when constituted under the legal label of a "corporation" — have little in common with the business corporations that are the true concern of those who views the Citizens United decision, and the unchecked power it ratified, as a grave threat to democracy. As Professor Witt himself notes, there is a crucial difference between "ordinary people... get[ting] together and form[ing] groups" and business corporations "invested with powerful amounts of capital."
Apart from the difference in wealth, which is itself considerable, there is a vast difference in structure and governance. When a business corporation "speaks," is a ventriloquist's dummy, operated by a board of directors that is, in practice, unaccountable to anyone, including the shareholders who supposedly own the corporations and whose money the directors are spending.
To equate political action by membership organizations or nonprofits with political action by business corporations is to commit a serious error, with serious consequences. It is the latter that concerns those who are working to build support for legal reforms aimed at curbing the "power of Big Money in our politics" (as Professor Greenfield nicely puts it). If the wording of the proposed resolution (which I have not seen) is too broad, the appropriate response is not to dismiss it out of hand, but to refine it.
Louis Brandeis famously warned, "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." The Winston-Salem City Council, like its counterpart in Greensboro and so many other local government bodies across the country that have already acted, has a responsibility to defend democracy against plutocracy.
Eric Fink is an associate professor at Elon University School of Law in Greensboro.