Sometimes when children are young they invent friends. They talk and play with them as if they really exist. A girl might invite her parents to join her and her invisible friend Kim for afternoon tea. The amused parents will nod gravely when they are introduced to Kim, set her a place at the table. But the parents will stop play-acting when their child tries to blame Kim for a broken plate. They are likely to tell their daughter, “Stop that nonsense. You broke that plate. You clean it up.”

Conrad Black has an invisible friend. So does Lord Thomson of Fleet, Wallace and Harrison McCain, Kenneth Irving, Paul Desmarais, Frank Stronach, Galen Weston — as do all other captains of Canadian industry, finance and retail. But, unlike our little kid, they are not asked to shoulder the responsibility for any havoc they may cause. They are allowed to blame their “Kim.” Or Hollinger Inc., Thomson Corp. or Maple Leaf Foods as the case may be.

These invisible friends are corporations. We “hear” corporations talk. They “tell” us, “We are good corporate citizens.” They say, “People are our most important product.” In turn we speak about them as if they have a real existence, as if they were living, tangible beings. It is more common for workers in a dispute with their employer to say “the company is unfair” than “the boss is nasty.” This is so because, for many people, there is no visible human boss to be angry with but only an invisible employer — a corporation. It is a commonplace to acknowledge the existence of corporations and their significance to our lives.

And yet, corporations are constructs of law. No one has ever seen one, smelled one, touched one. Conrad Black’s best friend is just as invisible and, in human terms, no more real than Kim. But where a child’s invisible friend is a passing stage, corporations are the primary, permanent and very concrete tools that wealth-owners use to satisfy their never-ending drive to accumulate more riches and power at the expense of the rest of us, the majority.

One of the more astonishing things about this legal creation (and there are many) is that there are virtually no legal barriers to hurdle for any individual who wants to form a corporation. Individuals need not give any reason as to why they want to form a corporation. Nor does an individual need money, over and beyond the wherewithal to pay a derisory registration fee, to form a corporation. Every sane, non-bankrupt adult has the right to form a corporation by meeting a few minor procedural requirements to the satisfaction of a government bureaucracy.

The law’s largesse does not end once it has helped a real, live, human being establish a corporation.

First, upon registration — that is, birth — the corporation is instantly mature. Unlike us mere humans, a corporation does not have to go through a maturing, proving-itself-worthy period. From the moment it is registered it has all the legal capacities it is ever going to have.

In some important ways, the legal capacities of corporations are greater than those of human beings. A corporation can buy, sell, lease and own property, just like any adult Canadian. But, unlike us, a corporation can do so for ever. It has perpetual life; it does not age. To die, it must be killed (say, by a forced liquidation), eaten by another predator (a successful takeover bidder), or commit suicide (voluntary liquidation).

Being born fully mature, a corporation can instantly give birth to another corporation, or even thousands of others, by registering new entities as soon as it begins to “breathe.” In turn these offspring can do the same. Real live people imaginatively use this power to create family members at will to obscure corporate doings and to manipulate taxation and other laws.

This creative process is carried out in conjunction with the third characteristic, one that is just as fantastical as the first two. Given that, upon birth, the corporation instantly acquires a whole range of capacities to engage in legal transactions — in lawyers’ terms, it is endowed with some form of legal personality.

Each nation-state endows its citizens with a set of rights and duties that create a legal envelope within which the people of that nation-state can conduct themselves. Every political entity, then, bestows on its citizens a political and economic autonomy reflecting the scope of sovereignty of the human members of that polity. The content of this sphere of freedom of decision-making and action is termed the legal personality — as opposed to the psychological personality or the biological makeup — of a nation’s citizens.

In Canada we pride ourselves on having given ourselves a great deal of scope to make our own decisions; and, therefore, we boast that, here, freedom reigns. We believe that this country grants its citizens the respect they should be accorded as sentient human beings.

As it turns out, we accord very much the same level of respect to non-human beings, to non-sentient beings. Canadian law grants corporations, the same kind of legal personality that it grants to you and me. Section 15 of the Canada Business Corporations Act unequivocally states, “A corporation has the capacity and . . . the rights, powers and privileges of a natural person.” It could not be plainer: the law treats corporations as if they were real people. This gives corporations unexpected, indeed extraordinary, attributes.

Of course, there are some human things that a corporation obviously cannot do despite having been granted a form of personhood. But it turns out that the mere lack of human attributes does not always disqualify a corporation from claiming rights that we think of as rights that belong to human beings.

A corporation legally can engage in speech, base claims on human beings’ religious or political beliefs or even claim protection for its need for privacy, as if it were a human being. It makes sense only when we apply corporate law logic, and that logic is weird. To enable a corporation to ward off the impact of some government regulation they do not like, corporate persons frequently claim to have what an ordinary person might think of as peculiarly human moral and political attributes.

The fourth major characteristic of this amazing invisible being is this: the corporation has something lawyers call limited liability. The new legal person, the corporation, owns the property invested in it and borrowed by it to carry on business. It is this feature that enables it to buy, sell, lease, assign, or mortgage property and things, just as any free, adult Canadian can. This ability makes the corporation truly separate and distinct from its investors. The separate legal personality and its other capacities come as part of a package that includes limited liability — a truly stunning attribute.

It’s important to note that when people say a corporation has limited liability, they mean the opposite. The corporation’s liability, like yours and mine, is only limited by its physical ability (that is, by the extent of its assets) to honour that liability. Its legal obligation, like yours and mine, is not limited. It is the investor/shareholder whose liability is limited.

What is carefully hidden by saying that a corporation has limited liability — that is, hidden by the perverse use of language — is that it is people who, if they were not shaded from legal view by the veil of corporate personality, have limited liability. It is not Hollinger Inc., Thomson Corp., McCain Foods, Maple Leaf Foods, Irving Co., Power Corporation, Magna International, and George Weston and Loblaws that have limited liability, but it is Conrad Black, Lord Thomson, the McCain brothers, Kenneth Irving, the Desmarais brothers, Frank Stronach, and Galen Weston who are so blessed by corporate law. They are only responsible to the extent of their actual investment for the obligations incurred by their corporation as it pursued wealth for their benefit.

The magic of corporate law has made them less responsible than you and I. We are legally responsible for all the harm we cause and for all the debts we have incurred in our pursuit of profits.

It is, of course, the same protected corporate captains of industry, finance, retail, and everything else, and their mouthpieces, who continuously urge the rest of us, unincorporated human beings, to stand on our own two feet, to take responsibility for our own actions. We are told that we should not rely on artificial protections and, especially, that we should not accept handouts from governments just to shield us from the operation of the market. We should participate in market activities and take our lumps, as sovereign beings are expected to do.