Sunday, March 27, 2011


Two bad decisions: Dred Scott and Citizens United

Writing a blog that’s worth your time to read is not easy for me. I’m not a reporter and I don’t have access to any interesting news. At least news that I think might be interesting for you. I’m left with writing about my opinions about the news and the opinions of others. This is a blog of opinion. I try not to echo or repeat the opinions of others. They have to be my opinions and they have to be original enough to make it worth your time to read them. That’s the difficulty.

Anyway, that’s just an introduction to the subject of this blog. I try to compare the situation in the United States today with the situation following the famous Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court in 1857. The corresponding decision today is the one made about a year ago in which the Court decided that Corporations had equal rights with citizens regarding monetary contributions to political campaigns.

What was involved in each situation was (is) a conflict between two very different visions pf how our society and economy ought to be organized. In 1857 there were two visions. One was the ideal expressed in our Declaration of Independence in which we declared that all men are created equal and have an unalienable right to be free. The other was that society should be organized around the need to grow cheap food and cheap raw materials for manufacture, such as cotton, and the implied need for large farms or plantations operated with cheap and relatively unskilled labor. Cheap labor was supplied by African slaves. Those of us holding this view were convinced that Africans and their descendants were intellectually inferior to descendants of European immigrants. Hence, they were not capable of absorbing much education and should be used to perform low-skilled unpaid labor. This conflict could not be resolved peacefully. Three years after the decision the nation was split in a civil war.

Today one of the two visions is still the idealism expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the federal constitution. The other vision is that corporations should be treated as though they are persons and should have influence on public policy in proportion to their wealth. A justification for this belief is that public policy has a lot to do with the profit of many corporations and even with the very existence of some of them. Another justification is that a corporation is made up of many investors or “owners” and should be able effectively to advocate (with money) for their interests.

In thinking about how to organize this essay I considered the question of whether the present conflict of visions will lead to civil war. I decided against predicting a second civil war and I confess that the analogy between 2011 and 1857 is imperfect.


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