Monday, January 25, 2010

The Pathological Individual

I'm sure by now we've all had time to recover from our despair over the latest Supreme Court ruling.  Only to immediately despair again when you really start to think about the implications.  There's the obvious ones, like the fact that this is just one step in an ongoing plan to simply identify corporations with government in what would be almost the definition of fascism:

Mr. Bopp said the next step in his 10-year plan is to roll back the disclosure rules.

"Groups have to be relieved of reporting their donors if lifting the prohibition on their political speech is going to have any meaning," he said. Requiring groups that buy political commercials to report their donors is almost as punitive, he said, "as an outright criminal go-to-jail-time prohibition."

And then there's the more subtle ones, like the risk that foreign companies will start lobbying, with the predictable result being a backlash the leads to a trade war: 

"Will [the Supreme Court ruling] allow Hugo Chávez and King Abdullah to buy US elections?"

It's basically just bad top to bottom (Dred Scott anyone?), and I won't even bother to beat the dead horse we've all come to know and love around here.

I will however, leave you with one little gem of an argument, simply because it is so perfectly apropos of something I read the other day.

The "one and only social responsibility of business," economist Milton Friedman wrote back in 1970 in a New York Times Magazine essay that launched a thousand arguments, is "to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game ..." Friedman contrasted this with the multiple responsibilities that an individual — such as a corporate executive — might have "to his family, his conscience, his feelings of charity, his church, his clubs, his city, his country."

The individuals who make up the electorate in the United States are, as Friedman described, beings of many facets — their actions and their views shaped by pecuniary self interest but also by values, beliefs, and loyalties that might conflict with that self interest. The ideal for-profit corporation, on the other hand, is out to do nothing but make as much money as it can "within the rules of the game." It is supposed to behave in a fashion that for an individual would probably be described as psychopathic. And if corporations are allowed to play a decisive role in shaping the "rules of the game," we have effectively put the inmates in control of the asylum.

Of course, I'm the last one to argue that we need more morality in politics; individuals have proven they can be just as psychopathic as any corporation, especially when they herd together.  This is why the solution to this dilemma in clearly not to give corporations the rights of individuals and then ask them to behave morally.  We can't even get individuals to do that, and we probably never will.  The pathology in either case is less a function of some innate moral failing than it is a simple runaway feedback loop.  In fact, perhaps the reciprocity of morality was always just a mechanism for taming this feedback loop and allowing us to come together and cooperate with lower risk of exploitation by the very power structure that facilitates this cooperation.  We need to transform this mechanism so that it works in a crowded, networked world where knowing the reputation of everyone you interact with has become impossible.

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