Reading Eugene Volokh’s excellent post in defense of the corporate entity reminded me of a discussion in law-school, in International Environment Law, where we discussed Chris Stone's, “Should Trees have Standing?” Stone argued that animals and even lesser forms of life—like plants, the trees, vegetation—should have “rights” because this line was already crossed when we granted “corporations” rights. The most obvious response is that dispensing rights in this manner “trivializes” rights. The counter-response is that during the founding, the Declaration was only understood to grant rights to propertied white males and the notion of granting rights to blacks or to women might also been seen as a “mockery” of rights.
And there are some folks—mainly associated with the progressive left [Chomsky, Z-Mag types]—who think that the notion of granting “rights” to corporations—in essence allowing corporations to exist—was just a horrible thing, certainly something that makes a mockery of rights.
Personally, I think that expanding rights to blacks, women, non-Protestant sects, (and even homosexuals) was consistent with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, hence consistent with originalism. Rights are for humans, not animals, certainly not for lesser forms of species.
Therefore, it must be argued, and I did argue that granting rights to corporations was in effect, granting rights to humans. Corporations are just voluntary associations of human beings. The “corporate entity” that is granted these rights—free speech, property ownership, due process, equal protection, etc.—is of course a “legal fiction." It’s really the people who own the corporation that are granted such rights. The corporate entity status—with its limited liability and permanence (death, disability, or bankruptcy of a shareholder won’t affect the status of a corp., as it would with a sole proprietorship or a partnership), is a necessary fiction in order to enable such a large amount of people to get together and pool their resources.
Now anti-corporate types may still understand that corporate rights essentially derive from the private owners of the corporation, but such critics may nonetheless argue that such huge centers of power ought NOT to be allowed, because they will still do more harm than good (Chomsky refers to corporations as "tyrannical structures"). I disagree, because, as Volokh notes:
We'd probably also have far less wealth, technological progress, health, and military security (since wealth tends to on balance bring health and military security). The aggregation of economic and political power does create some risks for democracy, for instance by making it easier for power centers (whether corporations, unions, or other interest groups) to lobby for government handouts and protectionist measures. But modern economic history suggests that such aggregation of power is necessary to effectively develop and distribute consumer products, tools, medicines, food, and so on.