On Citizens United: Why Corporations are People and Why That’s a Good Thing

Gather round, children. Here’s a story:

Once upon a time, there was this ship owned by a rich guy. He sent the ship on a long voyage to pick up some cool stuff where it was cheap, then brought it back and sold it where it was expensive. He pocketed the money and got even richer.

Back home, a bunch of not-so-rich guys said, hey that looks like a good deal! We should do that too! But none of them were rich enough to buy a ship on their own. So they said – I know! Let’s pool our money and buy a ship together. Then when the ship gets back we can each get some of the money we make, based on how much we each put in.

Great idea, they agreed. Hey and guess what? If only one of us owned the ship and it sank, we’d lose *everything*. But this way, if our ship sinks we’d each only lose a small piece.

Cool. This gave everyone an opportunity to benefit from and share the risks of group activity, not just the already-rich.

Okay good deal, said one of the not-so-rich guys. But what happens if a problem comes up while the ship is sailing? Which of us gets to decide what to do next? Well we’ll hire a captain, the other guys said. While the ship is sailing he gets to decide what to do – a good captain will know more about ships than we do, and he’ll make better decisions than we would anyway. And if he makes a bad decision, then we fire him and hire a different captain.

But wait a minute, someone said. If we all own a piece of the ship, who’s going to be responsible when someone needs to sign a contract or buy something or negotiate with someone if none of us are there? The captain, they said. We’ll give him the right to speak on our behalf. We can tell him to say anything we want him to say.

Cool. This means that professionals can be hired by, directed by, and held accountable to the groups that employ them. They can be employed to say what the groups instruct them to say.

This turned out to be a pretty good idea. People realized that they didn’t have to limit themselves to ships – they could do this with railroads or banks or computers – or schools or churches or unions. Any group of people could pool their resources to accomplish anything they wanted. They could share in the rewards – and risks – of how it turned out, they could appoint people to run the whole shebang  to the best of their ability, and they could empower those people to speak and act on their behalf.

Now laws had always affected the ability of these groups to be successful. But laws are made by people, and people’s minds can be changed. Sometimes changes to laws would benefit their group, so the professionals figured out how to do that. And they got really good at it.

But that made some people mad. They said “Sometimes I disagree with the changes being made to these laws! Let’s make it illegal for these professionals to do that!”

“Wait,” others said. “You want to make it illegal for groups of people to influence the way laws are made?”


“Any group?”

“No, just the ones trying to make money!”

“But that money belongs to their owners. And their employees. It makes them better off.”

“Yes! And that’s bad!”

“What about trade associations? And unions? Aren’t they trying to make their members better off?”

“Okay good point. Maybe it should be illegal for them too.”

“What about universities or nonprofits or advocacy organizations? They’re trying to make people better off too.”

“Well that’s different! Sort of.”

“What if a group of people wanted to start an organization to change a law. Should they be able to do that?”

“Well of course!”

“What if that change made them better off?”

“Okay. Well. Hmm.”

Trying to decide which kinds of groups could or could not influence lawmaking got really complicated really fast. Groups of people coming together for a common purpose is a very effective way to accomplish that purpose, not to mention a natural human instinct. Preventing some groups but not others from saying things (or hiring professionals to say things on their behalf) means you’re limiting speech for some but not others.

It may not be convenient or popular to think that corporations are groups of people, but you quickly realize that they are. And few of us would tolerate limits to our speech, or limits on the speech of the groups that we choose to represent us.

The truth is that – just like the joint-stockholders back in the shipping days – being able to create or join a group of people to pursue a common purpose is a deeply democratic principle. Being able to do so allows everyone to participate where only the rich could do so before. Corporations – any group, really – focus pools of capital and talent on the pursuit of whatever outcome its constituents choose. Whether we agree with those outcomes or not, pursuing them as a group is simply a logical and more powerful extension of pursuing them individually, and should be treated with the same respect.

Michael Sattler

With a career spent in founding and technical leadership roles with new and enterprise-level organizations, Michael Sattler is a veteran in technology strategy, operations, and product management. He’s spent decades in B2B and B2C SaaS product development, software and application design, engineering operations, new venture creation, and innovation practices.

He has scaled and managed technical teams from 2-50+ across three continents, led large-scale cross-functional program management, and founded or co-founded six companies.