Monday, September 22, 2008

Big Business is not inherently evil

I hope that most people would agree with that statement, but because it looks likely that I will be doing quite a lot of Big Business bashing on this here blog in the near future, it seems like I ought to lay out this idea as a baseline.

In my experience (which is significant, though not extraordinary), corporations are -- as a general proposition -- typically not bad actors. Businesses large and small have the basic goal of pursuing profits. There is nothing wrong with this, and in fact it is the very basis of our economic structure and the reason for our relative level of prosperity as a nation. In other words, I've read Adam Smith, and I agree with him.

Of course, in pursuit of profits, both corporations and individuals sometimes color outside the lines and do bad things. I submit that this is to a great degree the exception rather than the rule. A great majority of businesses have a built-in incentive to play by the rules and be good corporate citizens; that is, when they fuck up and act egregiously, they run a great risk of suffering in the court of public opinion and thereby losing the goodwill of their customers. This conflicts with their primary goal of pursuing profits.

Furthermore, businesses large and small -- even giant corporations -- are run by individuals. These individuals act according to a set of morals, which of course vary from person to person just as they do with individuals in general. The point being, the people who manage businesses are probably no more likely to do evil things than anybody else.

And also... I've long had the (somewhat ill-formed) idea that complex, detailed regulations placed on businesses by the government actually encourage bad behavior. Consider that no set of regulations, no matter how detailed, can ever prohibit every kind of bad act that the human mind can conceive of. Then consider that if a regulatory body says "here is a very highly detailed set of things you are not allowed to do", this, almost by necessity, leaves a businessperson with the idea that anything that is not prohibited by such a detailed regulatory structure must, by clear implication, be OK. This leads to "gaming the system", and the actions resulting from finding "loopholes" in a regulatory structure are simply then considered "smart" "innovative" ways to play the game, with any moral calculus being thrown out the window because, hey, if there was anything wrong with taking this or that action then obviously our government overseers would have prohibited it.

But back to my original point, the demonization of businesses and corporations is wrongheaded thinking. Some are good, some are bad, but most are not a menace to the general welfare.

That's where I'm starting from, and from that perspective I feel perfectly comfortable saying that allowing the nation's wealthiest financial institutions to reap huge profits when business is good and then having the ordinary taxpayer indemnify those same institutions when that very same business turns bad... well, people, that is the worst, most shameless kind of outright thievery I've ever heard of.

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