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Beyond Public and Private: Toward a Political Theory of the Corporation

  • DOI:
  • Published online: 30 January 2013

This article challenges the liberal, contractual theory of the corporation and argues for replacing it with a political theory of the corporation. Corporations are government-like in their powers, and government grants them both their external “personhood” and their internal governing authority. They are thus not simply private. Yet they are privately organized and financed and therefore not simply public. Corporations transgress all the basic dichotomies that structure liberal treatments of law, economics, and politics: public/private, government/market, privilege/equality, and status/contract. They are “franchise governments” that cannot be satisfactorily assimilated to liberalism. The liberal effort to assimilate them, treating them as contractually constituted associations of private property owners, endows them with rights they ought not have, exacerbates their irresponsibility, and compromises their principal public benefit of generating long-term growth. Instead, corporations need to be placed in a distinct category—neither public nor private, but “corporate”—to be regulated by distinct rules and norms.

Corresponding author
David Ciepley is a Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Denver, Sturm Hall 468, 2000 E. Asbury Avenue, Denver, CO 80208 (
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American Political Science Review
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