The role of Ethics, Economic Power and Political Power in Big Corporations

Today in class we had a short discussion on which is the economic and political power of Corporations and Transnational Companies in the Global Political Economy as compared with the power that have states and governments.  Undoubtedly, the scope and array of political activities of  companies is huge and their economic activities are even more diverse.

More so, the power of these corporations to shape culture, politics and media is widely studied and written about in books, journals and documentaries. What is usually not mentioned is that these huge and powerful companies have acquired political power by the use of their profits for the sake of protecting their interests.  These interest and the means used are subject of ethical judgement.s

Generally, the political power to which we usually identify this corporations is that of lobbying.  However, many other ways of achieving global economic and political power are open for corporations by allying with ruling governments, offering loans and investment for countries and/or new cities; but also by the enforcement of specific news agendas and in the Media to inform citizens.

It is of particular interest for me the ethics of the political and economic power that a company has.  The pursuit of profit is the goal of a company by the provision of services to its consumers.  It is profit which fuels a company to continue growing and providing services.  However, this activity of pursuing profit is subject for ethical judgements that historically have been judged by/from immoral philosophical backgrounds. (For further information on what I consider to be Morality or Ethics please visit: http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/morality.html)

The pursuit of profit is a moral action when undertaken in consistency with the respect of individual rights.  As such, a company should and can influence politicians by lobbying when it considers it necessary for them to increase their profits.  The lobbying that is ethical is that which doesn’t creates privileges but that which eliminates regulations on competition that was previously benefiting special interest groups.

Historically, the role that Corporations and Transnational Companies have had  should be analysed in context when judged about its morality or immorality.  Thousands of pages of research that demonstrate how corporations have used its political power to achieve special privileges can be found everywhere.  The immorality of the actions of many corporate managers has been demonstrated and data on how they have violated human rights can easily be found in newspapers.  But this is not an absolute; just because some (or most) of the companies have violated and abused of their economic and political power it doesn’t make of them to be intrinsically evil or corrupt.

Corporations are not humans.  However, corporations are managed by humans whom depending on their philosophies of life can respect or violate individual rights and disobey the rule of law.  It are only those companies which act ethically which at the end of the day will profit the most and benefit the rest of society in a positive sum game.  Those companies and their managers who are willing to violate rights and act unethically have brought the Global Political Economy into zero sum game results in which only one side of the exchange has benefited.

And here, once again, the enlightment of Ayn Rand comes to play particular interest when identifying which is the difference between economic power and political power.  As well, as what is ethically correct for a company to do or not to do.

Rand wrote that,

What is economic power? It is the power to produce and to trade what one has produced. In a free economy, where no man or group of men can use physical coercion against anyone, economic power can be achieved only by voluntary means: by the voluntary choice and agreement of all those who participate in the process of production and trade. In a free market, all prices, wages, and profits are determined—not by the arbitrary whim of the rich or of the poor, not by anyone’s “greed” or by anyone’s need—but by the law of supply and demand. The mechanism of a free market reflects and sums up all the economic choices and decisions made by all the participants. Men trade their goods or services by mutual consent to mutual advantage, according to their own independent, uncoerced judgment. A man can grow rich only if he is able to offer better values—better products or services, at a lower price—than others are able to offer.

Wealth, in a free market, is achieved by a free, general, “democratic” vote—by the sales and the purchases of every individual who takes part in the economic life of the country. Whenever you buy one product rather than another, you are voting for the success of some manufacturer. And, in this type of voting, every man votes only on those matters which he is qualified to judge: on his own preferences, interests, and needs. No one has the power to decide for others or to substitute hisjudgment for theirs; no one has the power to appoint himself “the voice of the public” and to leave the public voiceless and disfranchised.

Now let me define the difference between economic power and political power: economic power is exercised by means of a positive, by offering men a reward, an incentive, a payment, a value; political power is exercised by means of a negative, by the threat of punishment, injury, imprisonment, destruction. The businessman’s tool is values; the bureaucrat’s tool is fear.

And by this she meant that economic power is always ethical because it pursuits a reward for men everywhere and anytime (in the entire process of designing, production, transportation and distribution of products and services).  And as such that the political power of a company appears when the businessman becomes a bureaucrat or lobbyist that uses the power of government to achieve privileges for himself and his company.

This discussion comes from observing the following table which presents the GDP-PPP of the Top 100 Economies in the World (2009) which was prepared by the World Bank.  Particularly relevant from this table is the fact that among the top 100 economies the authors included also the largest companies in the world in base of their Revenues-PPP (2009).  In position #32 appears Royal Dutch Shell as the largest company of the list with revenues of 458 billion dollars and it is followed by ExxonMobil in position 35 with 426 billion dollars.  These two companies had Revenues-PPP in 2009 which surpassed the size of the GDP-PPP of countries like Venezuela (#48), Greece (#52) and Switzerland (#53).

Even though is not commonly done; I have always studied Global Political Economy by remembering clearly what is ethical human behavior and what is not.  Starting from this point then I try to understand what is or can be the effects of a government’s or corporation’s decisions in real world cases.  Unfortunately, the ruling ethical code among Academics today considers it to be evil to pursue profit, self-interest, individualism and collaboration in order to create positive sum games in global exchange.

Indeed, historical examples are not the best reference for illustrating how we can benefit from an Objectivist ethics perspective when understanding the role of Companies in Global Economy.  However, it is this lack of many examples which should make it easier for us to identify how a Businessman success depends on “his intelligence, his knowledge, his productive ability, his economic judgment—and on the voluntary agreement of all those he deals with: his customers, his suppliers, his employees, his creditors or investors. A bureaucrat’s success depends on his political pull.” (Rand, The Ayn Rand Letter, III, 26, 5. 1971-76).

Now, it is time for me to continue reading history and seeking for those few exemplary examples of ethical businessmen who have given us the best products and services in positive sum games for the entire world.

Inequality in India

By 2011 the BRIC economies had some of the highest rates of income inequality adjusted to the Human Development Index among developing nations.  At the same time, the BRIC countries had consistently had the highest GNP growth versus the previous 10 years among developing nations.  How is it that there is not a parallel growth of the Human Development of its citizens?  The answer and one of the biggest challenges for the BRIC countries is the fact that a large amount of the GNP is distributed among small elites that control their market economies.

Economists and investors such as O’Neill, Krugman and others largely emphasize the expected growth of the BRIC economies as indicators of where to invest their money.  Unfortunately, they have not paid the same interest to what many other economists consider important: the human development of the people.  Fortunately, there are still some economists who since the decade of 1970 paid a lot of attention to the issues of freedom and equality.  Economists leaded by Milton Friedman, the Economics Nobel Prize of 1976, argued that economic policies should be focused in the freedom of its citizens as a primary value.  To them, stressing equality per se could lead to economic inefficiency as well as it would put in risk Freedom itself.  However, the same economist argued that it was necessary for developing economies that the government took a central role in poverty alleviation in order to keep the pace with the economic growth of its economies.  Unfortunately, this poverty alleviation is not being done in the BRIC countries and the economic difference between the poorest and the richest continues to grow. Since the 60s, a large group of economists emphasized the negative effects of not paying attention to a free and equal development in emerging markets; economists like Friedman and Hayek wrote a lot in this regard and even recently Elinor Ostrom’s ideas, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, are still not listened by those who have forgotten the importance of good governance economic policies.

India is the country in which this income inequality versus human development is more pronounced.  Currently, India occupies the position #93 with an IHDI of 0.392 and the country has descended in the rank many positions since the last decade.  Inequality in the earnings among Indians has doubled over the last two decades, making it one of the worst performers among developing economies.  Why? This is again the result of the failed attempts by the Indian government to combat corruption, bad administration and under-payments and also of the unawareness of foreign investors.

The fact that foreign investors have no interest in securing the welfare of the Indian people is a problem.  To them, the investment opportunities of this specific BRIC country are of value until they find a better economy to move their money to.  However, the real stakeholders are not the foreign investors but the Indian Government and its groups of interest who should aim to secure the welfare of all of its citizens now that they have a chance.  While the growth of this economies will continue the effect it will have in such unequal societies will result in some of the worst rates of poverty and hunger ever seen in history. By 2025 India will be the most populous country in the world but also, it will have 268 million people (20.3%) living still with less than US$1.25 a day as reported by economists in the World Bank. The Indian government should go aligned with the current trade liberalization in order to support higher productivity in the private sector and to exploit its comparative advantage of having a labor-intensive industry to foster the production of goods and services.