"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Corporate Citizenship

A friend recently wrote in a Facebook post that the dominant movie theater chain in the Portland, OR metro area had decided to stop publishing movie times in the local paper and she was somewhat dismayed at this development.  Surprisingly, for me anyway, most of the respondents didn't share her response, instead seeing this as a kind of inevitable development in the internet age. 

At its heart, I think the difference in opinions represented in that exchange come from two different views on the roles of corporations in our civil life.  My friends comments seem to suggest that companies have a kind of civic responsibility to serve the diversity of the public while the respondents comments suggest their understanding that corporations have no responsibilites beyond creating wealth for their investors.  In the case of the movie times, it is likely that the corporation decided that an insufficient number of tickets were sold form people who sought information about the films in newspapers and so it was an inefficient use of their resources (ie, money) to buy the advertising space.  And thought their revenue may drop, overall they're better off because their costs will be reduced a t a greater amount than the loss of revenue which actually means a net gain in profits.

Now I don't really want to debate the merits of print versus digital media.  Hey, I'm publishing a blog and when I get to go to a movie I usually do look up my options and buy my ticket online.  At the same time, I do get the paper delivered to my house and subscribe to a handful of magazines that the good ol' mailperson delivers.   Also, I find e-readers highly unsatisfactory.  So I'm not wholly involved in or behind either side of that.

What I am interested in is the question of whether or not corporations have a public duty; that is do they have any responsibilities to the public beyond their attempts to make money for their investors?  Well, as I understand it, corporations developed as a means to insulate individual investors from the courts.  If you gave money to someone for a business and it turned that someone was crooked or wicked, you wouldn't want anyone harmed by their actions to come after you and potentially take away all the rest of the money beyond what you'd already lost from your poor investment.  in other words, corporations were created to mitigate risk to individuals while simultaneously providing stimulus for economic growth which theoretically is good for the many.

The means by which this is done is that the corporation is essentially granted the status of a person in the eyes of the law.  It can do all the things that individuals can do like enter into contracts, sue and be sued, etc.  But because of a fear of the intereference of tradespeople and merchants in the business of government (their was a bias back in the day against such folks, imagine) one of the things not granted to corporations is citizenship.  Corporations can't vote or hold office.  But perhaps this is something we should look at again.

If corporations were granted a kind of limited citizenship, say the ability to vote but not to hold office then we could leverage that to demand some accountability to the community on the part of corporation.  After all, corporations exist only with the assent and blessing of government, that is (here in America anyway) with the assent and blessing of the people.  We demand accountability of individual citizens, why not corporate citizens.  I can see some potential pitfalls, but it seems to me that one advantage could be to dilute the power of multinational corporations.  I'm no expert in economics, these are just some thoughts.  But if anyone has any thoughts of their own on this, I'd be interested to hear them.


  1. As much as I agree that a way to find corporations responsible and accountable is necessary, I don't think limited citizenship will accomplish that. Corporations already vote through their lobbying, and in my opinion, have their voice heard more often than voting persons. While it seems like, then, that there is nothing to lose by giving them an actual right to vote, the assumption is that this will hold them accountable while not actually giving them anything new. Except they won't be held accountable. We can't hold them accountable now, and that won't change if they are given limited citizenship.

  2. I think what I'm getting is that if we thought of corporations as citizens it would be easier to compel social goods from corporations in the same way we do so from regular citizens (think conscription) and to impose limits to scale (eg; you can't have drivers licenses in two states) because those are normal and natural consequences of the social covenant of citizenship.