What Can Corporations Teach Governments about Democratic Equality?


Politicians and commentators tend to portray the one-person/one-vote principle as fundamental to democratic government. Business corporations and other private entities, in contrast, tend to operate on the principle of one-share/one-vote, a practice that allows one person to exercise more control than another over their collectively owned institution.  The one-person/one-vote approach popular in political contexts works best for protecting the kinds of personal rights — freedoms of conscience, speech, and innumerable others — to which each of us has equal claim. But that should not end our pursuit of democratic equality. Corporate law’s one-share/one-vote principle works best for protecting property rights — specifically, the property rights of those who invest in a community. This essay argues that an egalitarian democracy should include both forms of vote. Each resident of a polity should enjoy equal access to corrective democratic procedures, allowing the people to defend their individual rights by submitting officials and laws to popular veto. Each of a polity’s shareholders should enjoy equal access to constructive democracy, allowing them to manage the creation and management of their jointly owned community. This double democracy combines both public and private methods of governance, giving equal treatment to personal rights of residents and the property rights of owners. This is not just a matter of fundamental fairness. Business corporations, residential cooperatives, and similar institutions demonstrate how aligning control with ownership can help a community flourish.