Recently several people have expressed frustration, within hearing range, over infuriating actions of large companies. For example, Apple's practice of generating excessive hype for unremarkable hardware by applying a spot of polish and a kiloton of marketing. Aggressive lawsuits and patent trolling are another instance. Attacks on the reputability of excellent sources of journalism are a third.

The corporation is a paradox. Unlike the human beings that own and work for it, the corporate entity can be physically massive and far-reaching, to the point of incomprehensibility. We are hard-pressed to even picture Toyota's 300,000 employees, or the 9 million cars it sells annually. Conversely, while the behaviour of their employees and investors as individuals is complex, corporate 'behaviour' is very simply-motivated.

In fact, it is not reductio ad absurdum to say that nearly all business ventures have a single purpose: to generate a return on investment. This is an ineluctable truth, their raison d'être.

With this in mind, we see that it is unreasonable to treat corporate behaviour as if it were human behaviour. "Singly-motivated" humans are frequently described as insane. Likewise, it is unreasonable to describe corporate behaviour using the human qualities of hypocrisy, audacity, justice, honesty, fairness, consistency, etc.

On the other hand, lower life forms, which respond predictably to changes in their environment, are a good model. If I say that ivy will put roots in weak mortar, unable to know that such action will cause the wall on which it lives to collapse, you can begin to see my meaning.

Bacterial colonies can be made to commit suicide by consuming all the food in a closed container. Similarly, when the return on investment is demanded quickly, the corporation can be expected shoot itself in the foot by generating short-term profit and ignoring (or actively denying) the possibility of long-term repercussions.

There are, of course, attempts to quantify the human impact of corporate activities. In such discussions you hear the terms goodwill, corporate social responsibility, ethical consumerism, and so on. But at root these are ways of assigning monetary value to efforts to limit profit-reducing public backlash against corporate actions which are seen as 'evil'. In nature, small creatures will avoid the unwanted attention of predators and competitors.

Applying this sort of analysis doesn't reduce the human damage often caused by corporate actors, but it certainly renders most instances unsurprising. The comparison works best for larger companies, in which the actions of the whole are most divorced from any good intent of the many individual employees. It also explains why we tend to see fewer 'inhumane' behaviours from non-profit organizations and charities. Freed of the overriding imperative to generate returns, these entities can adopt decision-making structures that tend to increase other outcomes.

Finally, to my mind, the analogy clarifies the issue of public versus private provision of government services. To shoehorn the positive societal impacts we expect from certain government programs into the measure of profit or return on investment is often inappropriate. Even where it is, private service providers can only be expected to yield the desired outcome if the direction of increased return is carefully aligned with more positive societal impact. On the other hand, as outlined above, the same providers can be expected to find all new ways of generating returns which do not necessarily correspond to any societal improvement—bursting like so many blades of grass through cracks in the figurative pavement.


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