Psychopathic Corporations

Martin points to an Economist review of a anti-corporate film that tries to make the case that corporations are “pyschopathic” by their very nature. It’s presented as “asking the question”, but I can’t see how you’d get a different film if you’d started off with the answer.

I think this is a further trend of an irrational fear of the profit motive — something I’ve commented on previously. Take the following line from the Economist:

Like all psychopaths, the firm is singularly self-interested: its purpose is to create wealth for its shareholders.

There’s two problems with that. One is the if the firm’s focussing on its shareholders then it’s not focussing on itself. Some firms do focus on themselves instead of their shareholders — they reinvest their profits in themselves, rather than making distributions; although that’s usually considered to benefit the shareholders by keeping the share price high, or by allowing for higher distributions in the future. And shareholders are independent of the firm: they have their own lives and interests, they can opt out of the ownership of the firm if they choose, and they have their own lives outside the firm. So by that view, corporations aren’t solely self-serving, they’re in fact absolutely beholden to others. Of course, if you do consider the shareholders to be a form of hive-mind making up the corporation, then you have to count their actions as well; and they’re not “singularly self interested” — they raise children, they make friends, and if they’re like Bill Gates they give billions of dollars to charities.

The other problem is that if the desire is really to create wealth, rather than just to provide or redistribute it, then the company’s focus is actually on improving society — by definition you don’t create wealth by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor (or vice-versa) but only by creating useful new things that didn’t exist beforehand — whether that be new tools for doing things better, discovering new things you can do that make life more pleasant, or just better ways of doing old things. But again: that’s not selfishness in any way.

People are fundamentally selfish — not to the exclusion of all else, and maybe not even first or foremost; but selfishness isn’t an optional trait — complete altruism, or complete disinterest in your own interests, is a good way to get walked all over, or, even if that doesn’t happen, to feel like you’re getting walked all over, and the bitterness, jealousy or hate that entails. That’s not a win.

“The profit motive” is a way of codifying that — you set yourself up to do things for others, creating things, building things, on-selling things, whatever but with a view to getting some consistent benefit for yourself. Choosing to ignore the “do things for others part” so you end up with just “getting some benefit for yourself” might manage to leave you with a psychopathic sort of arrangement, but it’s not an accurate, or even a particularly honest assessment.

I don’t really think that leaves the overall argument of the documentary with a basis, but its ancillary points are flawed too. Let’s look at them.

And, like all psychopaths, the firm is irresponsible, because it puts others at risk to satisfy its profit-maximising goal, harming employees and customers, and damaging the environment. The corporation manipulates everything. It is grandiose, always insisting that it is the best, or number one. It has no empathy, refuses to accept responsibility for its actions and feels no remorse. It relates to others only superficially, via make-believe versions of itself manufactured by public-relations consultants and marketing men.

The reasons corporations are “irresponsible” are because it puts others at risk — like a guide taking folks up Mount Everest: sure there’s a risk, but people know about it up front and are willing to take that risk for the benefits they get; because it harm[s] employees and customers — any company that harms its employees and customers won’t keep them, they’ll either go somewhere else, or they won’t use the service at all, and if you’d rather be employed at FooCorp than unemployed, then FooCorp is making you better off than you’d otherwise be, not “harming” you; and because it damag[es] the environment — well, sure, if you count every use of the environment as “damaging” it, but if it’s okay to cut down some trees to build houses and roads, then most corporations aren’t causing particularly much damage, either.

Manipulating everything is a bit of an ask — individual corporations aren’t all powerful; and if you think being grandiose or always trying to be the best is evidence of being a psychopath, then we’d better start watching out for our elite atheletes going on murderous rampages. Lacking empathy with your customers is a good way of going out of business, and writing a complaint about some canned food will usually net you an apology and either a refund or a replacement for your purchase; a quick google search will even find companies trying to help other companies apologise. It seems odd to claim that companies that spend huge amounts of money trying to understand their customers, and then more trying to communicate with them have only a superficial relationship with them — especially when having in many cases all that expense is designed to build a stronger relationship.

Psychopaths are folks with antisocial disorders. Corporations are voluntary associations of folks that work towards their own interests. Which is more antisocial: working with folks to further common goals, or creating agit-prop to try to disband such groups by likening it to criminal behaviour and mental disease?

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