Staredown: Eye to eye with a viper.
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Wisely the old stories instruct us: The jinn you free will do exactly as you tell it, no more and no less. But it will pervert to the extent of its ingenuity the intent of your words; to do so is its nature. Thus we must be precise in the commands we give, that they be not used to our hurt; every word must be chosen with as much care as if our lives depended upon it, for indeed they do.
In the case of corporations, although they started firmly under public control, we have gradually permitted the former limiting clauses of their charter to fall away until they are left with a single imperative: Make money. How they do this, we have collectively decided, is none of our concern. Indeed, the dominant Chicago School of economics holds that corporations need not follow the laws of their countries at all, that they should freely violate them in their quest for profit; and if they are caught, merely to take the fine as an “externality” and a cost of doing business. Note here that this view does not apply merely to “venal” offenses: It refers to real and destructive crimes against employees, consumers and the broader interests of society. These include such acts as poisoning entire towns unlucky enough to be downwind or downstream from their operations, skimping on coal-mine safety with explosively lethal results, and many similarly fatal manifestations of collective functional psychopathy.
Of course, most psychopaths in the executive suite never go so far as murder; they content themselves with merely corrupting our laws, our leaders, our institutions and our discourse. These are what psychologists call sub-criminal psychopaths, and they are disturbingly common: Depending on the source, one to four percent of the general population falls into this category. Such moral morons are not easy to detect, for the most dangerous of them wear masks of sanity and may seem the model of healthy normality. But they have certain common characteristics: They have no conscience to restrain them from doing evil, and feel no remorse when they do; they care nothing about anyone save themselves; they are superficially charming and born manipulators; and they often make their way to the top of any hierarchy that rewards contempt for laws and human rights by offering money and power to the most ruthless. This is definitional, and it will easily be seen that a corporate charter that more or less explicitly scorns the rule of law would tend, over time, to attract such personalities.
Corporations were not always so powerful, so unaccountable or so contumelious. Once they were chartered to serve a specific purpose and then dissolved; and if they exceeded their mandates, they could be annulled by an injunction for ultra vires — actions beyond their stipulated powers. Restoring such a limited charter, as this article counsels, may be an effective step.
Other suggestions we may wish to entertain include dissolving corporations en masse and allowing federations of smaller businesses to take their place and transferring ownership of a company to the people who work for it.
One fact, however, remains inescapable: We have to regain control of this genie before it puts us in the bottle.