This is the fourth in a series (see the first, second and third) of articles analysing corporate personhood and the standards to which we hold corporations. Since Dartmouth v. Woodward in 1819, private corporations have been viewed as having many of the same rights as you or I, prompting one to look at the state of business around them and ask simply, what kind of person are you?
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; the conclusion to any life, much like the conclusion to this series of articles must be a natural end. Death is a part of life that we often don’t like to think or talk about; however, it is still a part of life. As we’ve explored in this series of articles, corporations are very unique types of persons that differ in many ways. Whether as unhealthy yet frighteningly powerful infants; socially awkward, irresponsible teens; or sociopathic and near-untouchable adults; we have seen how corporate persons differ from flesh and blood. But in no stage of life do we see more of a stark contrast between the two then in old age.
If corporations are persons, then why won’t they die?
Let’s get this out of the way first: yes companies can die. But all the ways in which they die I would consider accidental or preventable death. Lehman Brothers contracted a rather nasty condition by playing around with too much toxic debt. Nortel owed way too much money to the people you don’t want to owe money to and suffered the consequences. Enron fell in with some shady characters and made some rather poor life decisions that led them down a path of ill refute. These companies all died, but they are the exception, not the rule.
What I’m concerned about is dying of natural causes, a feat that seems impossible for any corporate person. They can be seemingly lying on their deathbed, but then find new life in a re-envisioned strategy, bold leader or champion product. While they may go through a number of iterations and changes over the years, many corporations (as much as we may want them to at times) just won’t die. Take for example Hudson’s Bay Company (1670), Beretta Firearms (1526) or Hoegaarden Breweries (1445). What kind of person do you know that can live forever?
If corporations are persons, then our airlines are zombies.
There is of course a caveat to corporate death: it doesn’t have to be permanent. If bankruptcy is the equivalent of flat-lining, then for a society that does terribly with corporate infant death, we’ve got the greatest geriatric intensive care doctors money can buy. The only problem is that, as a man deathly fearful of (and very excited by) the potential for zombie apocalypse, I question what kind of a company we create every time we bring them back from the dead instead of just letting them die.
Take for example the aviation industry. Countless airlines have gone under at some point in their history: Continental, Delta, Eastern, Northwest, Pan Am, Trans World and US Air. These corporations have come back from the grave so many times that one almost has to question whether bankruptcy is a convenient strategy for shedding debt to begin anew. I won’t dig too deep on this point, but I will say that I for one don’t trust these companies coming back from the dead and feasting on the brains of healthy, functioning businesses that are trying to make it without cheating death.
If corporations are persons, then why aren’t they more like us?
To sum this up, the overarching question remains: what kind of person are these corporations? If we’ve given them so many of the rights to be like us, then why do we not expect them to be more like us? What would a corporation look like if it was compassionate, curious, quirky or fun? Why do we expect so much of the people in our lives and yet so little out of the corporations in our lives? I for one would like to see more out of the corporations around us to ensure that the rights we give them match up with the responsibilities that every person should have to face.
If you want your customers to start respecting you like a person, then start acting like one.