I recently proposed at the Laissez Faire Books Blog that Wal-Mart shut down all of its operations in Maryland. I explained that they should do this immediately, in protest of a Draconian new state law mandating how much they spend on the health care insurance of their employees.
I instructed Wal-Mart to hold a press conference in order, first, to apologize for its actual sins — for example, occasions on which it has collaborated with local governments to eject property owners from their land on spurious eminent-domain grounds — and, second, to declare that given the right of Wal-Mart officers to bargain freely with Wal-Mart workers, Wal-Mart would not cooperate with the new law. I said Wal-Mart should announce that all operations in Maryland will begin to be phased out starting now, a process to be concluded within two weeks unless the Maryland legislators saw fit to rescind the new law.
There were critics of my proposal, whom I answered in a subsequent post.
One of my critics, a blogger, went so far as to claim at his blog site that because corporations are a “creation of the state” (like, presumably, all organizations that benefit from legal conventions and protections), the government may therefore properly compel its members to do virtually anything when they are acting as part of the corporation – including fork over more dough for employee health insurance. My new arch-enemy suggests that this is so because a corporation, being a confection of the state and hence “not a person,” can possess no rights. It exists at the sufferance of the state and is thus obliged to be the state’s bitch. I may be paraphrasing.
I am not fully satisfied with what I have posted to date at LFB. The more I consider the claims of my new arch-enemy and the assumptions on which they rest, the more I realize how deeply destructive these assumptions must be of the individual rights of all of us if followed to their logical conclusion. In fact, in a society governed by these assumptions, all our rights would be wiped out.
It is, crucially, the various individuals within a corporation who enjoy rights, including any contracted-for rights. This is so even should the law speak of the corporation as a fictional person as a matter of convention. Mr. Enemy wants to dispute this; i.e., he wants to dispute that the participants retain rights as individuals to freedom of action within the contracted terms. But he can’t dispute it unless he relies upon the implicit assumption that an individual and his rights cease to exist whenever the individual enters into a contractual-legal agreement with one or more other individuals. Otherwise, Mr. Enemy would have no trouble agreeing that a State Legislature should not be micro-managing Wal-Mart’s business decisions. At most he would simply be making a not irrelevant but essentially separate argument about the need to repair alleged deficiencies in the laws governing corporations.
If Mr. Enemy’s rights-annihilating assumption were true, its scope would be wider than he seems to realize. It would apply to many more persons than those who participate in corporate enterprises. For it would mean that you and I and all other persons lose our rights as individuals each time we enter into an agreement that generates any kind of persisting organization of persons subject to a rule of law. And what is the most basic such organization but society itself?
Mr. Enemy’s assumptions imply that as soon as individuals in a state of nature become peaceful and deliberative enough to form a society and government, to form any law-governed polity at all, they may then properly be ordered about by the rulers of that regime, and no matter how ostensibly reprehensible the orders may be. That’s Hobbes waving in the distance. Society under a rule of law would then be viewed as a “mere” concoction of the state and of course “not a person”…just as a corporation made possible by contract and rule of law would be viewed as a “mere” concoction of the state and “not a person.”
This much is true: groups of persons are not the same as the individual persons within the group. It’s the individuals who are the individuals.
This ultimate consequence of Mr. Enemy’s perhaps insufficiently attended assumptions may well be what the Ralph Naders and other would-be dictators have in mind: the power to govern a land in which no individual citizen possesses any legally recognized and enduring rights that any ruler need respect. After all, it is harder to social-engineer from on high if the little people down below possess individual rights considered by the law to be sacred and inviolable. (To be clear about my own political-ethical understanding, I should stress that I don’t believe that persons have or could ever possibly have a “right” to health care, or to any other good or service, that exists apart from obligations freely incurred by others, e.g. by parents when they choose to raise children. What we have is the right to the freedom of action we need to make an honest living – which would be one based on voluntary trade with others, not robbery.)
We must thus accept the stunning fact that Mr. Enemy’s argument is not really about limited liability or any other debatable legal feature of corporations. Rather, his view implies that the very act of engaging in organized cooperation under the aegis of law in and of itself constitutes a wholesale relinquishing of one’s rights as a person. One becomes in consequence merely a society-part – just as an officer of a corporation becomes, in consequence of joining the corporation, merely a corporate-part. And though you can quit a corporation, how do you quit society without moving to a desert island? Meanwhile, the necessities of making a living in any more complex way than growing carrots in a garden require that one form and join sundry sub-organizations within a society – such sub-organizations as corporations. The problem is a single problem, the assault on the ability of the individual to act a single assault.
It seems that the desert island is the only solution. Given Mr. Enemy’s assumptions, the only way to remain an individual, to retain one’s personhood, would be to reside in complete isolation from the rest of society, with not one other human being in the vicinity, nor any scrap of law.
And that can’t be right, can it?
David M. Brown is the publisher of The Webzine, a general-interest Internet magazine, and runs the blog for the Laissez Faire Books web site, where he talks about Wal-Mart, annoying laws against being annoying, and other things.