The idea of corporate personhood is one that has been enshrined in Canadian law for many years. I have always found the notion troubling but was heartened a few years ago when I first heard the now famous maxim “I’ll believe a corporation is a person when Texas executes one.” It’s funny and serious in equal measure. If corporations are people then what laws do we have in place to punish them for criminal behaviour? Fines are typically deployed to usually ineffectual results. One need only examine how the billions of dollars in fines leveled against HSBC over the years have worked to change that organizations behaviour. Not one iota if the recent revelations from the Unaoil scandal are to be believed. Not that we should be surprised. How can we expect fines that amount to a rounding error in company profits to have any punitive effect?
This all came to mind today when I was considering the Volkswagen emission scandal. We now know that the company developed the so-called “defeat device” to cheat on emission tests at least a decade before it was first deployed in VW’s hilariously named “clean diesel engine” (one can’t help but imagine the svelte Aryan executives in the VW boardroom killing themselves with laughter after coming up with that name). That fact reveals clearly that this wasn’t the act of a few “rogue engineers” as the company had previously claimed but a premeditated act of fraud that likely reached to the highest levels of the company. VW has already taken an $18.9 billion write down in order to repay or repair the tainted vehicles, but is that enough? At what point does a corporation lose the right to life? Perhaps this scandal doesn’t rise to the level necessary to pull VW’s corporate charter but there are others that almost certainly do. (BP, SNC-Lavalin and Chevron come to mind) It’s time for this country to enact corporate responsibility legislation that includes punishing fines for corporate malfeasance and the power for regulators to dissolve a company if their criminality reaches the awe-inspiring levels we have seen on display over the last decade.