Works in Progress - Autumn 2012

Six Ways of Looking at Corporate Greed

By Richard White | March 18, 2013

Historian Richard White, the author of last year’s Pulitzer Prize finalist Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, writes about Gilded Age corruption, the American West, Native American history, and the history of the environment. He is professor of American history at Stanford University. We asked him to pose questions about whether corporations are greedy.

1. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins, and these sins are human flaws of the kind that Christians think lead to perdition. We can apply them metaphorically to nonhumans, but can we do so literally? Rabbits might copulate with abandon, but we don’t think of them as lustful. So can a nonhuman entity—a nonbiological entity in the case of corporations—be accused of human faults in any way but metaphorically?

2. American law complicates any assessment of corporate greed. Under the law, corporations have become metaphorical persons endowed with quite real and legally enforceable rights, but except in the eyes of Republican presidential nominees, a legal person is not a human being. Persons are not legally “people, too.” But if corporations possess not just metaphorical but actual rights, can they possess not just metaphorical but actual human faults, among them greed?

3. If a corporation is judged to be greedy, what constitutes its fault? Homo economicus exists only to profit as a producer and to maximize utility as a consumer, but actual human beings live more complicated lives. According to the Christians who made greed a deadly sin, God created humans to love, honor, obey, and serve him, as the catechism says, so greed is outside God’s purpose. Corporations can be created for all kinds of reasons, but business corporations exist only to make a profit. If a corporation seeks to maximize its profit, it is only doing what it was created to do. If we created corporations for the express purpose of making money, can we accuse them of greed when they excel at what we designed them to do?

4. We usually think of greed as accumulating excessive wealth to the detriment of others. The wealth that resulted from the corporate encouragement of smoking seems to be an example of this kind of corporate greed. Corporations sought to undermine the clear science that linked tobacco use with cancer, creating deadly addictions so that they could maintain profits, which would benefit their executives and shareholders. But in a corporation, the decisions are collective and no individual makes the decision to lie and obfuscate. If the decision is collective, isn’t the responsibility collective, and isn’t it the corporation that is greedy and culpable?

5. A corporation is a legal person, but it is composed of numerous people. Early laws chartering corporations made shareholders legally responsible for the corporation’s debts and actions, which seems to indicate that, at least initially, Americans conflated the actions of corporations with the legal and moral responsibility of their owners. This would also seem to allow the conflation of individual wrongdoing—greed— and corporate actions. Did this, and does it still, allow an opening to judge corporations to be greedy? Did changes in the law erase this possibility?

6. Can corporations be the victims as well as the agents of greed? The men who controlled 19th-century railroad corporations were by any standards greedy and corrupt. They made fortunes by using the corporations they controlled, but they also made them at the expense of the corporations, which often went bankrupt. Was the corporation, which was both the means and the victim of such actions, greedy, or were only those who used it to loot taxpayers, workers, and investors greedy? And if a corporation can be a victim of greed, isn’t it a possible corollary that it can be the agent of greed?

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