Corporations are not people. They're persons.

There’s a bit of hoo-ha about Mitt Romney saying that “corporations are people.”

He was using shorthand to refer to the fact that taxes on corporations are ultimately borne by people (not just shareholders, by the way—workers and customers as well), which is absolutely correct.

Romney’s off the cuff statement has been used pretty unfairly to malign him.

This is because the phrase “corporations are people” has some political salience because of Supreme Court decisions that are purported to have granted special rights to corporations on the grounds that they are people.

There’s even a movement to amend the Constitution to say that corporations are not people.

This may just be the dumbest controversy EVER. It makes intelligent design look like the general theory of relativity. It’s like a controversy about whether the sun rises in the east.

Even the intelligent Jon Chait writes in defense of Romney “there is a controversy over whether corporations are people from the standpoint of law.” No there isn’t.

Understanding why corporations are not people, but persons, is easier with some grasp of law and history, but really, all it requires is knowledge of English and logic.

Corporations are persons.

What this means is that they’re recognized by the law as entities that can have a name, sue in court, be a party to contracts and have property.

Different types of persons have different types of rights, but these types of persons have only the rights that allow them to exist. Not the kind of “human rights” that fleshlings enjoy. (These non-people persons are referred to as “moral persons,” an even more misleading term, as opposed to “physical persons.”)

That’s it.

That’s it.

That corporations are persons does not mean that they are people, as a matter of law, language and logic. (Etymology, as often, helps: persona in Latin is the mask that actors would use in the ancient theater. Legal personality is thus the “mask” that either individual people or groups of people use to act in the legal arena. This is also why we have the word “persona” in English, which also refers figuratively to a mask.)

And if corporations are people, it means we’ve reinstated slavery, because corporations are bought, sold and even killed by their owners every day.

But there’s an even more profound reason why this non-controversy is stupid.

It’s not just that it’s an obvious fact that corporations are persons, not people, and that this, in itself, is utterly uncontroversial and of no notable policy consequence.

It’s that the doctrine of legal personality is one of the basic building blocks of civilization. It’s right up there with writing and indoor plumbing.

This is because without legal personality, it is not possible to have an institution that is distinct from the humans who make it up.

A state is a legal person. Without the concept of legal personality, any land and its inhabitants are the personal property of its ruler, as it was for much of human history. Even Robert Mugabe would not dare assert personal legal property over all of Zimbabwe.

It is quite simply one of the greatest achievements of civilization that we reached a level of sophistication high enough that we could not only conceive, but theorize and enforce the concept of an institution that is, actually, nothing but an abstract concept (there is no such thing as “Wal-Mart.” There are buildings and people and bank accounts, but “Wal-Mart” doesn’t exist. Except as a fiction. As a law professor of mine used to say “I’ve never had lunch with a corporation.”).

It’s not just a great achievement of civilization because it’s a beautiful concept. It’s a great achievement of civilization because without it all of civilization would collapse. Every collective human endeavor now includes the creation of non-people persons. Literally. Imagine what would happen if every corporation and state vanished overnight as a legal construct (but leaving all the buildings and stuff intact). Society. Would. Collapse.

Being opposed to the concept of corporations as persons, or not understanding why corporations are persons and why the fact that it is so is as problematic as the fact of the sun rising in the east, is frightening.

(Parenthetically: Why, then, the controversy around Supreme Court decisions? A few reasons.

(1. People are stupid.

(2. The omniscient and perfect Framers of the US Constitution neglected to distinguish in their text between the vulgar and legal meanings of the word “person”. For example, in the infamous Three-fifth Compromise, the “free persons” used for the purpose of the census do not include corporations. But in other stances of the use of “persons”, they might. But this is not a debate as to whether corporations are persons (they are) or people (they’re not), but a debate as to how to interpret the Framers’ sloppy English.)