Saturday, January 23, 2010

Could Corporations Use Their New Power For Good?

Corporations now have free reign in running political advertisements. There are interesting questions about person-hood, constitutional rights, and government rolled up into the issue, but at its simplest this gives corporations more control in government. Was that what's been wrong lately? Has the American citizen grown too powerful, and these poor multinational corporations too weak? If only Haliburton and Blackwater had more access to government would we have been able to avoid the corruption of Iraq War contractors?

What bothers me is the idea that corporations could possibly be responsible partners in shaping government policy. Let's pretend some candidate is running for Senate, and promises that if he's elected he'll eliminate the income tax for programmers. That would be a pretty good deal for me. Perhaps the free market would reduce my salary in return, but it'd reduce the competitiveness of outsourcing firms. I'd just about certainly end up ahead. Would I vote for that guy? No. It would be good for me, but I don't believe government is just for maximizing the money flowing into my wallet. I'm better off financially then most people my age, I feel that I should pay my share.

But what if I was CEO of a public software corporation? Could I say "Sure, it'd help me if I didn't have to pay taxes on my programmers, but that's not a good way to run a country. I'm going to speak out against it?" No, I couldn't. I'd be legally barred from spending corporate money in that fashion. The fiduciary duty of an executive means that he needs to put his shareholders interests first. He's legally liable if he doesn't. It's not some liberal distrust of capitalism that makes me think corporations are going to abuse their new found power, they're legally obligated to do so.

The Preamble of the constitution sets out to "..promote the general welfare." A corporation is legally required to promote the welfare of the shareholders over anyone else. There's a fundamental mismatch here. We could outlaw that clause in corporate charters and require them to be good citizens. But I think it's naive to think that would be any good for the economy. Self interest works well in the free market. But the government isn't, and shouldn't be, the market. The distinction between the two has worked out well for the history of democracy, do we really want to get rid of it? In essence, the court decision has given the loudest megaphone to a small group of people, and told them "if you don't use this selfishly we'll take it away." Could that possibly be good for the nation?


  1. Yeah, I'm pretty outraged too. Supreme Court, what the hell?