In the last two years much has been made of the Supreme Court decision regarding the case “Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission.” Citizens United, as it has come to be know in the press and in the political rhetoric, basically argued that corporations are protected under the First Amendment. Such protection includes the spending of corporate dollars on political advertising. The outrage was such that even President Obama, once a Constitutional Law professor, decried the ruling in his State of the Union address in January 2010.
Most critics have come to dismiss the decision by arguing that it equates a corporation with a person. Now, they say, not only are persons protected by the Bill of Rights, but so are corporations. Of course the root problem here is that individuals are barely able to muster the cash to air expensive political ads while their corporate counter parts can easily gather enough for several ads in every state.
While I often bristle at any conversation related to the Citizens United decision, I have come to take a different tactic of criticism. The problem, I want to argue here, is not with the equation of corporations to persons, but the defining of persons as economic units. In other words, economic theory and practice has come to define everything- politics, people, and speech.
There is not much to gain from arguing against economics as a matter of human existence. The processes of exchange, sharing, distribution are all based on the interaction between human beings. The problem rises when economics is not seen as a tool of interaction but the sum of being; That is to say, when existence is based on systems of production and capital.
The Citizens United decision reveals the extent to which our theories and practices of exchange have come to define us as human beings. Today, humanity is reduced to it’s ability to work, make a wage, and then spend that wage. So in the American political system it is nearly impossible to make any changes to tax structures because of the impact on wage earning capacity, and by extension the freedom to spend that capital based on individual preference.
Take for example any typical debate about taxes. One wing of the political spectrum argues for an increase in state revenue in order to pay for public education and infrastructure needs in the next decade. Immediately, this argument is rebutted by any number of persons/corporations who say that taxes limit the economic potential of the state, thus increasing unemployment. Whether or not the Supply Side theory of economics was laid to rest in the Reagan years, the debate often folds without any consideration of the values of education or infrastructure. Any further redirect would have to accept the terms implicit in the “no new taxes” position by arguing that infrastructure is a boost to economic development. The education element of this scenario would also have to make the case for an educated pool of workers. Then, the human person is again defined as a unit within a purely economic world view- i.e. a person’s value is to be determined in productive capacity.
In the years of the Cold War the sides were defined by two different modes of economic and governmental theory. Often the critique was that socialism treated human persons not as individuals but as parts in a larger system. Free-market westerners often took the moral high road in these debates. Unfortunately, they simply veiled the similar reality. Persons in a Free Market system are only important in so far as they either contribute to or draw from the economic engine. A person is a producer, a consumer, or a means of capital. Rarely are persons seen as individuals with needs and desires.
D Stephen Long offers a helpful example of how economics has come to define all things, including moral values in his book Divine Economy: Theology and the Market. In describing the term “opportunity cost” he describes a fictitous couple whose sexual intercourse is assessed based on the costs- time spent not being productive. What if the husband can find a prostitute for half the cost? As Long states: “Although ourvalues might be shocked by such a calculation, the economic facts are clear. It costs this couple $25 per hour for sexual intercourse. If he utilized the services of a prostitute and she worked the hour, the economic index of productivity would increase by $75.” (pp 4-5)
Though crass, this cases makes plain that economic practice can quantify any and all parts of our lives. It is no wonder that practices of contraception and abortion are often celebrated as a means to economic recover for a nation. Limit the number of non-productive consumers and the GDP increases. Regardless of the example, however, economic theory tends to define personhood in this producer/consumer matrix. Thus, a corporation must be equated human rights such as free speech since it is merely an aggregate of producers. In this way, a corporation is simply a super-person by it’s economic impact.
Persons of faith should rightly stand against such a definition of personhood, just not for the reasons often trumpeted out against the Supreme Court ruling. Rather, we should have said enough long ago when existence and personhood were defined in economic terms. Reading the opening of Genesis it is clear that personhood is defined by a relationship- just not a relationship to production and exchange. Existence is a gift of being made “in the image of God.”
Christian resistance, then, should not be so concerned about the Big Business or political repercussions. Instead ours is to protest the defining of persons in economic terms.