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Tuesday, January 25, 2005


corporate social responsibility

reason noted the economist's attack on corporate social responsibility with some approval.

i read their leader and can't help but think that the author (and maybe the economist) has an incomplete picture of the world. they run on and on about smith (and implicitly locke) but do not recognize how the west has profoundly changed since 1688.

i agree that diverting work from the third world for wage concerns is silly. but calls for corporate responsibility are a product of the rampant antisocial individualism of our times -- which did not exist in adam smith's world.

the economist notes:

Thus, the selfish pursuit of profit serves a social purpose. And this is putting it mildly. The standard of living people in the West enjoy today is due to little else but the selfish pursuit of profit. It is a point that Adam Smith emphasised in 'The Wealth of Nations': "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." This is not the fatal defect of capitalism, as CSR-advocates appear to believe; it is the very reason capitalism works.
right -- but what smith and locke understood to be self-interest is not what we would think. smith envisioned a fundamentally christian "commercial humanism" -- not the randian war of all against all he is too often caricatured to have meant. this is a man who wrote "the theory of moral sentiments" -- his most popular and influential book in his lifetime -- to advocate the sympathy, tolerance and common humanity he felt so strongly that he assumed it innate -- and took care to separate the moderate "selfish" from the destructive "unsocial".

Hatred and anger are the greatest poison to the happiness of a good mind. There is, in the very feeling of those passions, something harsh, jarring, and convulsive, something that tears and distracts the breast, and is altogether destructive of that composure and tranquillity of mind which is so necessary to happiness, and which is best promoted by the contrary passions of gratitude and love. It is not the value of what they lose by the perfidy and ingratitude of those they live with, which the generous and humane are most apt to regret. Whatever they may have lost, they can generally be very happy without it. What most disturbs them is the idea of perfidy and ingratitude exercised towards themselves; and the discordant and disagreeable passions which this excites, constitute, in their own opinion, the chief part of the injury which they suffer.

Smaller offences are always better neglected; nor is there any thing more despicable than that froward and captious humour which takes fire upon every slight occasion of quarrel. We should resent more from a sense of the propriety of resentment, from a sense that mankind expect and require it of us, than because we feel in ourselves the furies of that disagreeable passion. There is no passion, of which the human mind is capable, concerning whose justness we ought to be so doubtful, concerning whose indulgence we ought so carefully to consult our natural sense of propriety, or so diligently to consider what will be the sentiments of the cool and impartial spectator. Magnanimity, or a regard to maintain our own rank and dignity in society, is the only motive which can ennoble the expressions of this disagreeable passion. This motive must characterizeour whole stile and deportment. These must be plain, open, and direct; determined without positiveness, and elevated without insolence; not only free from petulance and low scurrility, but generous, candid, and full of all proper regards, even for the person who has offended us. It must appear, in short, from our whole manner, without our labouring affectedly to express it, that passion has not extinguished our humanity; and that if we yield to the dictates of revenge, it is with reluctance, from necessity, and in consequence of great and repeated provocations.
it is in this way we can see how we differ. emotionally-charged retribution and perfidy and ingratitude in kind are the hallmarks of the modern man in loss because we have become so individually selfish and prideful and immodest as to render ourselves powerless but to feel so unmitigatedly at the loss of anything -- or even the threat of loss. moreover, in the aftermath of the romantics, we feel entitled to act out our emotions in any way we please, society and expectations be damned. capitalism practiced from such an amoral, unrestrained basis becomes not the engine of creativity but an exercize in nihilistic indulgence.

smith presumed that the search for shareholder benefit would occur within the utilitarian moral framework he found around him -- and is hopelessly lost today, post-byron, post-nietzsche. to belittle many efforts at social responsibility as inefficient and counterproductive misses the point of why such a notion might take root and indeed be needed in the first place. the shallow cynicism with which many companies practice CSR, as the economist rightly notes, only drives the point further home.

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