Book Review – Time to Change Corporations: Closing the Citizenship Gap by Robert C Hinkley, 162pp

Slightly longer than Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Robert Hinkley’s book is in the best tradition of radical pamphleteers and makes a major contribution to the debate on how the law should treat corporations.

I first came across Hinkley when I read about a campaign he contributed to, which showcased the amorality of corporate legislation. In 2003, a number of activists got together and created a company called License to Kill, Inc. Articles of incorporation acted as the Constitution of the new company.  In them, Hinkley wrote that its commercial objectives were to manufacture and market “tobacco products in a manner that would result in the deaths of more than 400,000 Americans and 4.5 million other people every year.” Soon after, the Commonwealth of Virginia certified License to Kill, Inc so it could commence trading as a legal company.

Like any serious company, it setup its own website and logo, which consisted of a skull with two smoking cigarettes representing the crossbones and dollars in the eye sockets.

While this was all good fun, it illustrated how dysfunctional the law is in allowing a company with such a blatantly immoral objective to open its doors for business.

In Time to Change Corporations, Hinkley offers some sober recommendations on how corporate laws could be reformed.

His starting point is looking at the role and duties of citizenship, which go “beyond just obeying the law.”  He goes on to explain, “It involves doing more to safeguard the public interest in the law otherwise requires. It is voluntary and self-regulatory. It is a restraint on the pursuit of self-interest, which protects the public interest.”

The problem with corporations goes back to 1886, when the US Supreme Court created the idea that corporations could become legal persons. Unfortunately, over the years this concept has been extended to provide many rights to business entities, although they don’t necessarily have to display the same duties and obligations as human persons. While they don’t have the vote or right to take up arms to defend the homeland, they have been able to acquire many of the privileges that go with the Bill of Rights and other freedoms granted by the Constitution.

If only corporations were required by law to become good citizens, then, Hinkley argues, many of their destructive instincts would be tamed.

Hinkley proposes that companies adopt his Code of Corporate Citizenship, which dictates that directors must act in the corporation’s best interest but “not at the expense of the environment, human rights, the public health and safety, dignity and employees or welfare of the community as in which the corporation operates”.  As a corporate lawyer with more than 30 years experience, Hinkley’s proposal needs to be treated seriously.

While Hinkley has chosen to write such as short book in the tradition of Thomas Paine in the hope that it will be widely read, I would like to have seen more discussions on how such a proposal would work in practice. There are too many instances where corporations have been able to manipulate public discourse, perverting our ideas of what the “public interest” is to match their own self-interest.

While there has been a spate of books that document the evils of modern corporations, not least the popular The Corporation by Joel Bakan, Hinkley has taken the discussion to the next level by putting forward practical proposals on how the system can be reformed, and for that reason alone this book is well worth reading.

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