This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed at the end of October, 2021
A former manager for Facebook, turned whistleblower, recently created quite a stir by telling the world that Facebook knowingly sacrificed the public good to enhance its profits.
The “public good” Facebook knowingly sacrificed included inflicting psychological harms on younger users (including increased risk of suicide), disseminating misinformation, and degrading the integrity of American democracy.
The revelations by the whistleblower evoked comparisons with the story of Big Tobacco, which worked for decades to prevent the American people from knowing something the people who ran the tobacco companies knew full well: that their product was addictive and was killing hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.
In both cases, the pursuit of profit overpowered all other concerns.
But it would be a mistake to understand these stories in terms of particular companies or industries.
A good friend of mine is a preeminent expert on the subject of the asbestos industry. (He has literally “written the book” on the history of asbestos in relation to public health.)
The tragedy of asbestos – no, the crime — is that the companies long ago came to know that the material their workers were handling daily was deadly. But to maximize their profits, the companies kept that knowledge to themselves, giving false assurances to their workers, and not investing in the protective equipment that workers’ safety required.
As a result, thousands of people, all over America and indeed all over the world suffered miserable illness and death caused by the asbestos particles they’d breathed into their lungs on their jobs.
In trials around the world, juries of citizens have found the asbestos companies liable for the terrible damages done to those individuals, families, and communities.
Both the asbestos and tobacco industries began innocently enough: they had a product people wanted, and they provided it.
But eventually, those industries discovered that their products were killing people. What did they do? In both cases, they did everything they could to hide their discoveries, so that their profits would keep coming in. And people kept dying.
Once I asked my friend – who had studied various industries — if he knew of any instances where the corporations had acted differently, i.e. had chosen to save lives of innocent people despite some loss of profitability.
No, he said. In every such case, the companies seem invariably to make the same choice: Killing people for money.
(“Killing people for money” is the definition of “hit man,” which the law regards as an especially reprehensible category of murder.)
A still more egregious example — even worse than “killing people” individually – has lately come to light.
Forty years ago the fossil fuel companies became aware that their product was destabilizing the earth’s climate. And what did they do? They not only hid the truth, when the scientists began issuing warnings, the corporations deliberately sowed false doubts in the public mind about that danger.
For their own short-term profits, in other words, the fossil fuel industry knowingly threatened the well-being of our children and grandchildren, and the whole future health of human civilization.
What are we to make of the consistency of such consistently immoral choices?
Some might conclude that it’s because greed and selfishness are such powerful parts of “human nature,” such that it’s unsurprising that people would choose their own enrichment even at the cost of great harm to others.
But the answer lies mostly elsewhere– in systemic factors.
One systemic factor is that it is not random who gets into positions of decision-making power in big corporations. Whether it is the founders of corporate giants (Rockefeller, Ford, Vanderbilt, Zuckerberg), or the people who rise to executive positions in corporate structures, there’s every reason to expect that money-making is higher up in their priorities than in most people’s.
Even where greed is not the driving force, those who rise to the highest levels in the corporate structure are likely to be highly motivated to “win”—and in the market economy, score is kept in terms of money. In such a competition, no amount of money can be enough, if someone else has more.
(That’s an important part of the explanation of why so many superrich people – who already have more money than they or their families could begin to spend – are still driven to get more.)
Another big problem is structural:
- The publicly-traded companies that dominate the American economy are organized with a separation between those who run them and those (the stockholders) who “own” them.
- The people who manage the companies declare that they have a fiduciary responsibility to serve the interest of the owners, which is simply assumed —since the owners are essentially mute — to be just getting maximal return on their investment.
In other words, such companies operate on assumptions that dictate that profit-maximization will overpower all other values in corporate decision-making.
For all those reasons, the system itself determines that vital decisions will be made without giving proper weight to the whole range of human values. (Regardless of whether it means killing people with tobacco, asbestos, toxic chemicals, or climate-destabilizing fuels.)
One lesson from all this – in terms of public policy and ideology — is clear: the libertarian idea that everything can be left to the market, and that there’s no need for government to regulate to protect the public good, ignores important realities.