In this week’s Goldberg File email, Jonah Goldberg talks about the notion that corporations should operate with an eye to “social responsibility”:
Milton Friedman was famously opposed to the whole idea of “corporate social responsibility.” His argument was that corporations have a single obligation: to maximize profits for shareholders. When CEOs spend money on gitchy-goo feel-good projects, they are exceeding their authority and wandering outside the lines of their job description. I’ve always been very sympathetic to this view. If you asked me to invest $10,000 dollars in your startup company and then I found out you spent $5,000 of it to sponsor a program to teach prison-gang members to settle their disagreements by acting out scenes from Little Women, I’d be pretty pissed. That’s not why I gave you the money. And it’s pretty shabby of you to buy fame and praise for your generosity while spending someone else’s money. Indeed, it’s not much less selfish than blowing it on a three-day bender with the mayor of Toronto.
There are lots of different takes on this argument and, because this is my “news”letter, I choose not to deal with most of them. My problem with the profit-maximizing-über-alles creed for Big Business is that it offers no principled or moral reason for Big Business to stay out of Uncle Sam’s bed. If the federal government can make it rain Benjamins for any business willing to twerk for its amusement, why should GE or Big Pharma or the insurance companies demur?
Of course, some businessmen understand the risks of getting in bed with the government. But, since there’s lots of money to be made, there will always be other businessmen perfectly happy to put on the French-maid uniform and bark like a dog.
Even Adam Smith said, “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” That’s true. What’s even more true is that when government officials and business leaders sit down to talk, the inevitable result is a new “public-private partnership” that uses government force to limit competition from non-whorish corporations. Railroad magnates lobbied for the Interstate Commerce Commission. AT&T asked the government to make them a monopoly in the name of “efficiency” so they could clear the field of competition. Andrew Carnegie wanted government control of the steel industry so he could rely on Uncle Sam to guarantee his profit margins. GE loves Obama’s green-energy stuff, because without the inherent subsidies and regulations, it couldn’t make money off of its green tech.
I have no problem with contractors doing work for the government. It’s better that the guys building roads and bridges work for the private sector. But when big businesses agree to make the country less free, the market less competitive, Americans less prosperous, and the state more powerful just to make a few more bucks for their shareholders, it makes me think that Milton Friedman was wrong. We need a free-market version of corporate social responsibility. We need to equip businessmen with an ethical code that tells them there’s a principled reason not to get in bed with the government. They’d still be free to violate that principle, of course, but if they did, I hope they’d have the good sense not to come running to us to complain that the government has asked them to eat a bowl of dogsh**t.