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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Corporations -- Love Them or Hate Them?

Neither and both.  Like it or not, they are one of the essential building blocks of a modern capitalist state, and they provide jobs and consumer goods to the rest of us constitutional "persons."

In fact, they are better than many people, given that their fault lies merely in amorality, not immorality.  The persons who send us viruses over the internet that cripple our computers, and the salespeople who lie to our face about their products in order to get a sale (or get an exorbitant price) do so out of a moral failing.  Big corporations, by contrast, merely seek to maximize their net profits; they might shade the truth or seem heartless for that reason, but we can only expect them to act "morally" if we impose penalties on them for "immoral" behavior, in such a way that acting "morally" becomes the best way to maximize net profits.

Thus, there is a line to be drawn.  We must regulate them to prevent the adverse consequences of their amoral conduct.  But we must not regulate them out of existence, since then we lose our jobs and our goods.  And we must carefully pick and choose the areas where we regulate them -- some are more important to our societal values than others.

One area is obvious:  we must not let them drive us poor, mortal humans into wars, in which the youth of both sides is killed or maimed, and untold numbers of "enemy" civilians perish, while corporations profit.  I don't know enough to make the case that it was the unprecedented corporate influence over the White House and Congress that led us into the Iraq entanglement, but I've heard others make that argument, and I haven't heard it refuted.  When corporations start dictating our military policy, we will have become a corporatist state.

Interestingly, this issue came up at the tail end of today's Daily Show interview of Fareed Zakaria by Jon Stewart (which I saw after the rest of this post had been written).  The show ended with Zakaria pointing out that World War II had the benefit of knocking out our competition, and Stewart saying that our new policy could be "we will flatten you, and then we will sell you what you need to rebuild."  That's essentially what we did in Iraq, but what we did there was even worse -- we didn't just "sell" them the materials to do the rebuilding, we sent in U.S. contractors to do the rebuilding itself.

But even if we have already become a corporatist state, all is not lost.  We as consumers continue to hold significant power over corporations (ok, not including military contractors and most of the financial services industry) -- if we share information about corporate trickery, we can regulate the corporations by withholding our custom.

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