Thursday, June 27, 2019

Corporations and the People's Party

Isaac's journal kept during the Populist Movement
The early years of what became the United States of America consisted almost entirely of a population of farmers, proprietors of small shops, and independent producers, like blacksmiths and farriers.  Gradually, that began to change from self-employed proprietors to large corporations operated by salaried managers.  The agricultural and small merchant society of community businesses and small towns with citizens having fewer economic differences evolved into larger urban areas with greater distinctions in wealth.

At the beginning of the Civil War, there were 400 millionaires in the United States.  By 1892 there were 4,047.  American society had evolved into a wealthy class, a middle class, and a laboring class.  Key to this evolution was the changing view of incorporation.  Many lawmakers saw the interests of the nation as linked to the growth of large corporations.  With this perspective, lawmakers voted for tax cuts and other benefits, and the old way of life changed forever.

It was during this period of rapidly changing social conditions that Isaac Werner kept his daily journal and farmers and other workers formed the People's Party to come together in their greater numbers to politically confront the smaller number of wealthy voters.  However, the wealthy had greater power, and with many politicians seeing corporations as essential to the economic growth of the nation, even those politicians elected by workers often voted with the wealthy once in office.

Power of Wall Street & Railroads political cartoon
Farmers like Isaac saw the incorporation of America as an unfair misappropriation of the nation's wealth.  The original idea had been that the new nation's greatest wealth was in its vast lands, a wealth that seemed inexhaustible.  Thomas Jefferson and others had predicted that it would take a thousand years for the population to spread to the Pacific, and homestead laws were enacted to encourage that spread.  Instead, only three generations had been needed.  Railroads had played a significant role in that expansion, and railroads had also been key to the economic changes in the nation, including the growth of incorporation.

After the Civil War the 14th Amendment was enacted to provide freed slaves "equal protection of the laws."  However, an aggressive lawyer used it for his railroad client's purposes.  Seeking to avoid a California tax on railroad property, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company owned by Leland Stanford argued that his railroad was a person too.  His lawyer cited the intent of those who drafted the amendment as having been meant to embrace 'artificial persons as well as natural persons."  Years later it was found that the lawyer had fabricated that intention.

By then, as the saying goes, the horse was out of the barn.  A series of cases which have led to the more recent Citizens' United case, have expanded the interpretation to see corporations as people too.

In a speech in 2003 by Bill Moyers, he said:  "They [populists and progressives] were a diverse lot, held together by a common admiration of progress--hence the name--and a shared dismay at the paradox of poverty stubbornly persisting in the midst of progress like an unwanted guest at a wedding.  Of course they welcomed, just as we do, the new marvels in the gift-bag of technology...But they saw the underside, too--the slums lurking in the shadows of the glittering cities, the exploited and unprotected workers whose low-paid labor filled the horn of plenty for others, the misery of those whom age, sickness, accident or hard times condemned to servitude and poverty with no hope of comfort or security. ...This is what's hard to believe--hardly a century had passed since 1776 before the still-young revolution was being strangled in the hard grip of a merciless ruling class."

United States Supreme Court
When America was founded, there was a natural suspicion of corporations, based on abuses known from English law.  The evolution of corporations in American was gradual, recognizing the benefits of people coming together to pool assets for businesses larger than the simple independent producers in the original colony but also realizing the potential for abusive power.  Yet, gradually the benefits began to seem more important than the risks.  Black's Law Dictionary defines a corporation as "An artificial person or legal entity created by or under the authority of the laws of a state or nation... acting as a unit or single individual in matters relating to the common purpose of the association..."

We ordinary humans do not need "the authority of the laws of a state or nation" to define us.  Corporations do.  In the Citizen's United case, the dissent argued that the Founding Fathers disliked corporations and never intended the First Amendment to apply to corporations.  In his concurring opinion with the majority, Justice Scalia wrote that even if that argument were relevant, "the individual person's right to speak includes the right to speak in association with other individual persons."  Scalia seemed to think that because a group of individuals had incorporated to manufacture "something or other," they were entitled to select those to speak for them about their common venture, and those persons, acting within that corporate capacity, are protected under the first amendment. 

For Scalia, the individual shareholder in the corporation has not only his voice but also the voice of the corporation of which he is a part.  One might say such a person has his own tiny voice but also the megaphone volume of his voice amplified by the wealth and influence of the corporation.  Others might see it as unfair for both individual shareholders and the corporation of which they are a part to have the protection of the 1st Amendment's freedom of speech, but the Supreme Court did not.

By analogy, it might be argued that all of those coming together in the People's Party in the late 1800s to exert more influence through the combined power of their votes were using the power of a political party to magnify their individual votes.  Even so, they didn't get to vote twice. 

Remember, you can click on images to enlarge them.


1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

History is full of examples of people rising up to kill off a tyrannical ruling group only to have another tyrannical ruling group arise. Funny how that works. Maybe Voltaire was right. The best government is a benevolent tyranny tempered by an occasional assassination. Voltaire.
But I doubt it. All benevolent dictators turn into tyrants or are followed by them.