Can you be against corporate social responsibility but in favor of unbridled corporate political speech?
The “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) movement can be explained by contrasting it with Milton Friedman’s proposition (here) that:
[I]n a free society … there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.
This exclusive focus on profits makes adherents of CSR uncomfortable because it seemingly urges individuals to ignore issues like environmental impact and working conditions when dealing with corporations. Fans of Friedman respond that if there are environmental and labor conditions that need to be dealt with, then they should be addressed via generally applicable laws that corporations will be subject to—but beyond that corporations should be judged solely on the basis of the wealth they create. CSR proponents reply that modern corporations are too powerful to be dealt with solely via generally-applicable laws. And so it goes.
The debate took center-stage in the blogosphere this week, spurred on by a post by Will Wilkinson (here), which noted that the uproar created by Chik-fill-A’s CEO’s anti-gay marriage comments raised some difficult questions for proponents of CSR. As Erik Gerding noted in introducing a Masters Forum on the topic over at The Glom (here):
Is CSR viewpoint neutral? When covering CSR in a Corporations course, I ask students whether social activists who are lobbying a corporation to change what they see as immoral employment practices, should be able to put their views to a shareholder vote? Then I ask whether the answer would or should change based on whether the activists are looking to end racial or gender discrimination or whether they are lobbying a company to stop offering benefits to partners in same sex couples.
(Stephen Bainbridge also chimed in here.)
Wilkinson ultimately argues that:
CSR, when married to norms of ethical consumption, will inevitably incite bouts of culture-war strife. CSR with honest moral content, as opposed to anodyne public-relations campaigns about "values", is a recipe for the politicisation of production and sales…. I'd suggest the best arena for moral disagreement is not the marketplace, but our intellectual and democratic institutions.
In other words, if the sine qua non of capitalism is the free flow of capital to the actors who will use it most effectively, then CSR hurts us all by diverting the flow of capital from the best producers to those who simply share our views on particular social issues (at least in those instances where the two don’t overlap).
I won’t rehash all the interesting arguments made in the posts linked to above (they are all well worth reading--you can find all the Glom Masters' posts here), but I will note that it seems to me a similar objection can be raised to the post-Citizens United freedom of corporations to spend seemingly unlimited sums on political elections. As just one recent possible example, I note that it seems at least some of the flow of capital to banks has been diverted on the basis of political leanings rather than banking efficiency (story here). So, should opponents of CSR also oppose unbridled corporate political speech rights?