Introduction: In August of 2011, then Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney made these comments during a campaign speech. Romney begins this segment by underscoring the need to balance the national budget and ensure that Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare are properly funded. He then mentions raising taxes as an option which he does not favor. When an audience member’s suggested that corporations could be taxed, Romney produces the argument we are looking at here. So, the larger context of the discussion is a question about a balanced budget and the prospect of taxing corporations, but the specific point of this argument is the claim that corporations are (in some sense) people.
Key Facts: This conversation takes place in the wake of a controversial Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC, 2010. In this decision, SCOTUS affirmed that corporations are persons under U.S. law and held that their free speech rights under the the First Amendment preclude government specific regulations governing contributions to political campaigns. Although the notion that corporations are persons under the law did not originate with Citizens United, this particular application of the principle was sufficiently controversial to draw public attention (and criticism) to the concept. So, Romney’s response to his hecklers effectively evoked the language of the court and steered the conversation squarely into ongoing debate over Citizens United.
Text: The Youtube transcript for this video wasn’t very helpful, so most of this is my own transcription. I have cleaned up the text a bit, omitting an effort to follow up on Romney’s initial point about taxation, and leaving out comments from the audience to which Romney is clearly responding. I did leave some conversational repair in the text.
“Corporations are people, my friend. …Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. So… Where do you think it goes? What? What? Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People’s pockets. Okay. Human beings my friends.”
Comments: As part of the 2012 political campaign, this specific argument is a bit dated. On the other hand, the notion that corporations are people (or persons) is still part of the public landscape, and many still find this notion quite objectionable. Romney’s reasoning is still representative of much of the pro Citizens United approach to the subject.
It is also worth bearing in mind that this argument takes unfolds under less-than-ideal conditions. Romney is responding to hecklers. His hecklers aren’t the worst you could imagine, and his efforts to reason with them are better than many speakers might attempt. Still, this is not the most idea context for a thoughtful conversation about taxation.
Statements: Even this simplified transcript contains a number of things that don’t contribute directly to the argument. Ultimately, the passage provides us with two clear statements on the subject.
 Corporations are people.
…Of course they are.
 Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.
Where do you think it goes?
Whose pockets? Whose pockets?
 People’s pockets.
 Human beings my friends.”
Diagram: This is a simple argument in which a single premise (articulated in whole or in part, several times) is offered in support of a single conclusion.
Discussion: This argument presents the following themes; Ambiguity, Composition, Equivocation, Footing, Misplaced Literalism, Motte and Bailey Doctrines, Principle of Charity, Voicing.
Ambiguity: The conclusion of Romney’s argument can be interpreted in at least 2 different ways; one in which the point is to make a direct statement about the nature of corporations (i.e. to say that they have the characteristics of personhood, at least insofar as U.S. law is concerned), and another in which he is using the language figuratively to remind people that you cannot penalize a corporation (whatever its actual nature) without penalizing people. In the second of the two interpretations, statement 1 could be read more like; “Whatever you do to corporations, you do to people.” We could call these two approaches ‘the relatively literal’ interpretation and the ‘figurative’ interpretation.
There is a second ambiguity in this argument insofar as the reference to corporations as ‘people’ evokes the concept of corporate personhood, but not exactly. It is common to think of ‘people’ as a plural reference to persons, or as a reference to collective groups of persons, but personhood can sometimes be attributed to non-human beings such as other entities, animals, or fictional characters. Simply put, a person need not be a human being whereas the plural reference to people would normally be taken to apply only to a bunch of human beings. This is a distinction not always observed in conversations about Citizens United, but Romney’s failure to say ‘person’ instead of ‘people’complicates the issue a bit. If we take his specific wording to mean literally human beings, then this points us away from the likelihood that he meant to invoke the legal significance of corporate personhood.
Composition: If we assume the argument is meant to consistently advocate a relatively literal approach to corporate personhood, it commits the fallacy of division. The fact that costs incurred by a corporation will impact those people investing in (or otherwise doing business with) a corporation doesn’t mean that the corporation itself is a person, literally or otherwise. Under this interpretation, this argument simply takes an attribute of those who make up and do business with corporations and attributes it to the corporations themselves.
Equivocation: Another way of thinking about this argument would be to think of Romney as actually shifting his own interpretation of his main point between his premise and his conclusion. In the conclusion, he is attributing the trait of personhood to corporations whereas in his premise Romney is merely suggesting that corporations impact the welfare of people. The meaning of ‘people’ itself might be said to shift between Romney’s premise and his conclusion. Of course, if this is the case, then Romney’s argument simply commits the fallacy of equivocation, so this rather complex way of interpreting the argument doesn’t really improve on one treating it as consistently advocating a relatively literal interpretation of corporate personhood.
There is a second equivocation nested into the first, and has to do with who Romney is talking about when he talks about ‘people.’ His own language evokes a seemingly egalitarian sense of the impact that corporate taxation has on people in general, but this raises questions about how corporate profits are distributed between investors and CEOs, or reinvested in the business, or even magnified or diminished through fluctuations in the stock market. There are lots of twists and turns in the business world that can channel profits away from some or all of the people who might be involved in a corporation. By simply treating corporations as people, even figuratively, Romney avoids any need to account for these possibilities, offering up instead a sense that what we do to corporations ultimately impacts people. In effect, he invites us to imagine corporate profits will go to the average American, knowing full well that quite often this is simply not the case.
Footing: It is interesting to note that Romney repeatedly refers to his audience, and even his hecklers, as ‘friends,’ This suggests a conscious effort to emphasize solidarity with them. This works in concert with his efforts to suggest that corporate profits lead to ‘people’ in general. What Romney uses strategic ambiguity to suggest in his argument is thus echoed in his efforts to cast the conversation as one occurring between friends. he is thus minimizing real differences and real conflicts within the American political economy both in his explicit argument and in his contextualization of that argument.
Misplaced Literalism: If Romney language was meant figuratively, then the relatively literal interpretation of his argument would be a mistake. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear from his actual statements which approach he has in mind, and his choice to assert that ‘corporations are people’ is conspicuous in the context of life just after Citizens United. It doesn’t match the language of the decision precisely, but neither does it fall into any more common patterns for talking about the issue, so it seems reasonable to suspect that he meant to evoke the principles announced in that decision. I do not see a clear basis for settling this question.
Motte and Bailey Doctrines: This might actually be a good example of a motte and bailey doctrine in action. Insofar as the relatively literal interpretation of Romney’s conclusion would make it an expression of corporate personhood as the Supreme Court currently applies the concept. This concept then provides a kind of short-hand in which the actual rights persons are applied to corporations as a matter of doctrine (the bailey), even as those seeking to explain this principle may frequently do so by reminding us that real people will be impacted by anything that effects a corporation (the motte). In effect, a common sense reminder about the real world impact that corporations have on people serves to provide an apparently sound defense for a range of ideas about how corporations may exercise the rights of a person in ways that may actually hurt actual human beings.
Principle of Charity: The relatively literal interpretation of Romney’s argument likely commits the fallacy of Composition (see above). Alternatively, the figurative interpretation is less clearly fallacious, but it does leave unanswered a lot of questions about the real impact that taxes on corporations will have on people. Romney may have answers for these questions, but they do not come out in this argument (the notion that corporations are people enables him to skip these questions). Barring sound reason to think Romney intends his conclusion to be interpreted in the relatively literal sense, the principle of charity would point to the second interpretation of the argument as the best way to go.
Voicing: Insofar as Romney asserts that corporations are people, his language evokes the court’s ruling in Citizens United (along with a range of related case law). In effect, he is giving voice to Supreme Court’s views on this subject by evoking their language (or something close to it) in his own campaign. This also means, Romney’s hecklers (and other critics) are effectively fighting back against the Supreme Court when they criticize Romney over this statement. So, the U.S Supreme Court acquires a presence in the immediate context of this speech (and in turn, within the 2012 Presidential campaign) through the voice of Romney.
Evaluation: At the end of the day, I do think the best way to approach this would be to apply the principle of charity to Romney’s argument, treat it as a figurative way of reminding us what happens to corporations affects people and evaluate the argument on that basis. That said…
Statement 2: This statement is true, but only in the most trivial sense of the word. Romney may wish us to think of corporate earnings as going to people in general (or specifically to those investing in, working for, or working with corporations), but this does not always happen (as a former corporate raider like Romney would know very well). We might say that the earnings will ultimately go to some persons, but we have little reason to believe they will be distributed equitably to ‘people’ in some general sense. This makes the abstract recipient of earnings (‘people’) that Romney references more than a little suspect.
Inference from 2 to 1: This inference is weak at best. Even using a highly figurative approach to Romney’s conclusion, he is avoiding all sorts of questions about how different policies impact people with different roles in the economy. the fact of the matter is corporate prosperity does not necessarily lead to prosperity for the general public, or even for the majority of those involved in a given corporation. What happens to corporations does not translate directly into real world impact on actual people. Any such impact is filtered through a range of legal and political arrangements which commonly turn good news into bad for selected parties and visa versa.
Hell, raising corporate taxes might even be a bad idea, as Romney clearly believes, but this argument does not help us to understand that.
The argument is unsound because the reasons given provide little support for the conclusion.
Final thoughts: I suppose in the end the biggest problem with this entire discussion lies in the mythic language in which it takes place. Whether we are to take that language literally or figuratively, it does nothing to help us understand the real world impact of corporate taxation or any other economic policies. We could imagine thoughtful discussion of the pros and cons of shifting more of the tax burden to corporations. That conversation simply did not take place at this event.