The recent Supreme Court ruling protecting the First Amendment rights of Americans, even if they are corporations or labor unions, causes many of us to pause to think about the nature of corporations and similar organizational structures.

Corporations are merely groups of people.  Corporations have no rights that people don’t have, but they also don’t lose the rights that people have.  If I have a right and you have a right, and we get together to exercise those rights, we don’t suddenly lose those rights just because we are exercising them together.

This principle is known as Freedom of Association. In NAACP v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court rules that the freedom of association is an essential component of freedom of speech. This is true because, in many cases, because, in many cases, people can engage in effective speech only when they join with others. I am not wealthy enough to buy television airtime on my own, but if I join with hundreds of other people like myself, we can buy television airtime.

Oftentimes, a corporation is only one person.  Many bloggers incorporate so that they can more easily deduct the costs of their home offices.  Under the laws which the Supreme Court overturned, any blogger who criticized a politician within six days of an election was subject to a felony conviction and up to five years in prison.  Corporations are people.

Like people, corporations can do bad things — but only when people within them choose to do bad things.  Here are four examples of corporations behaving badly:

  • Mattel lobbies for lead-testing requirements for toys — in order to drive their smaller competitors out of business.
  • Wal-Mart lobbies for higher minimum wages and mandatory employer-provided healthcare — in order to drive their smaller competitors out of business.
  • The American Council of Life Insurers lobbies to retain the death tax — in order to preserve their enormously profitable estate planning business.
  • The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America lobbies for government managed health care — in order to keep drug prices high.

But what do all of these examples have in common?  Government — they all require the collusion of government with big business.  Without politicians and bureaucrats doling out billions in taxpayer dollars, these companies would have no motivation for behaving badly.  If the government stuck to it’s enumerated powers, not of this would be an issue.

The way to deal with poorly behaving corporations isn’t to restrict their right to free speech — those terrible examples of corporate behavior all occurred before the Supreme Court affirmed the First Amendment rights of associations.  The way to deal with such poor behavior is to quit rewarding it.

If we the people refuse to elect politicians who give our money to every corporate lobbyist who hides $10,000 in their freezers, we will have nothing to fear from free speech.  The corporations are the symptom, but the real problem is out-of-control government power.