In support of the death penalty
By Pamela Haines, Quaker social justice educator with a concern for economics and the environment
While I’d never questioned my opposition to the death penalty before, believing that all human life is sacred, I find myself in the position of being willing to allow an exception. Actually, I find myself advocating for it. I’m willing to have a person who exists in the form of a corporation cease to exist.
The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the right of corporations to exist as people—to contribute to the political process however they feel inclined, and to the extent that their resources allow. This was an affirmation of a ruling in the late 1800’s that deemed the 14th Amendment, passed to give personhood to formally enslaved African Americans, should apply to corporations as well.
So corporations now have personhood, with all the protection of the Constitution. Not only that, they are essentially immortal. Hardwired for greed, existing for the sole purpose of maximizing profits for shareholders, they seem like unlikely candidates for immortality—yet they have no natural life span. When they engage in activity that would bring harsh punishment to the full extent of the law to any ordinary mortal—as when Massey Coal caused the death of 29 coal miners in the spring of 2010—the corporate person never even faces prison, much less the death penalty.
This can change. A Supreme Court reversal of its ruling that they are people would certainly help. But, with the life of a corporation dependent on its state charter, there are other possibilities. States could move to set limits on the life of a charter and require some indication that the corporation is a responsible citizen before renewing it. And ways could be found to punish corporations, as other people are punished—and not just with fines, the cost of which can be built into their budgets and passed on to consumers.
The equivalent of prison might be trusteeship—replacing the board and top management with public servants, and alerting the shareholders to expect their share of the suffering. But, in the face of an intransigently criminal corporation—one that causes death and destruction—I’d go for revoking the charter altogether and auctioning off the corporation’s assets. I think the death penalty in such a case is the choice that best manifests our Quaker testimonies on equality and integrity.