We Are It, or Not: Government versus Corporation

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, we are witnessing an outpouring of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Progressives emphatically deny that a corporation consists of nothing more than a voluntary aggregation of natural persons and that therefore it has all the rights of speech that its individual members have. Leftists have long maintained, and continue to maintain, that a corporation is something apart from, and more menacing than, the aggregate of its shareholders. They hold that corporations as such have no rights at all, but only privileges, which the state may revise or revoke as it deems desirable.

The progressive position is not obvious nonsense. Highly intelligent people have argued, and continue to argue, for it. Whether these arguments are valid as a whole or in part does not concern me here. I am struck, however, by a manifest inconsistency between the progressive position on the corporation and the progressive position on the government.

When aggrieved persons complain about the state’s actions and speak as if it were nothing more than an alien aggressor against an individual’s rights—and an impudently highhanded one at that—progressives have long replied that “we are the government.” In this instance, they steadfastly maintain that the whole is identical with the sum of its parts. Thus, no person has a firm ground on which to complain about the government because, after all, he is (a part of) the government.

This reply is so manifestly silly and transparently false that libertarians seldom pause to consider it except to mock it and to denounce the seeming foolishness or arrogance of anyone audacious enough to advance it. And rightly so, I think. I did not buy shares in the U.S. government; I simply happened to be born in a place known as Oklahoma, and by virtue of this happenstance, the gang of armed bandits who style themselves the U.S. government has claimed the right to rob and bully me at its pleasure from the day of my birth till today. Nor do they have any plans to lighten this oppression,  however unwelcome I may consider it to be. I cannot escape from it by “selling my shares” or by declining to deal with it.

That I bear any responsibility whatsoever for the manifold crimes of this gang strikes me as too preposterous to deserve debate. The fact that I have spent the preponderance of my life in the land of my birth and rearing, rather than emigrating to another place where I would also be robbed and bullied (because similarly overbearing governments operate virtually everywhere), in no way validates the government’s treatment of me. In short, I am not the government, not even an iota of it. It is as alien to me as the Martians who land their flying saucers in the Arizona desert and undertake to probe the local hysterics.

That progressives and other collectivists can maintain with a straight face that “we are the government” while simultaneously maintaining that “a corporation is separate and apart from its owners” stands of one of the most glaring inconsistencies in their ideologies. If they hate private property and individual liberty, so be it. But such hatred does not exempt them from an obligation to comply with the rules of logic and to respect the evidence of plain facts.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
Beacon Posts by Robert Higgs | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst
  • MyGovCost.org
  • FDAReview.org
  • OnPower.org
  • elindependent.org