The potential downside to Amazon's recent charitable endeavor
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Amazon recently pledged $3 million toward affordable housing in Arlington, Va. When realized, this pledge will help to address what most consider to be a pressing social problem and have a demonstrable impact on individuals and families in the area.

But it is an example of a worrying trend: corporations are playing roles that are more appropriate for governments.

It’s generally understood that some issues have a collective impact that require public attention and must not be left to private actors. Imagine that Canada decides to annex a piece of Maine. Its army crosses the border and begins securing towns and roads. The U.S. government does nothing to stop it. Seeing this, a U.S.-based private security force takes matters into its own hands, sending employees to do battle with the Canadians and push them back over the border.

Everyone will object to Canada’s aggression, but something is wrong with the private security force’s response too. The mistake is that they make decisions for us that should be made by us, the public. There is a mistake of “what” and “how.” The public should decide what to do about Canadian aggression, and how to do it. We might decide to resist, or we might decide it’s not worth it. We might engage militarily or economically or in some other way. These decisions should be made by society as a whole, not a handful of executives. 

Of course, it is not feasible for every member of society to decide directly whether and how to address the Canadian invasion. But these decisions should be made by our representatives, people who are accountable to us in a political process.

While a Canadian invasion would no doubt be a more pressing problem, the analogy to Amazon in Arlington should be clear. We would not cede the decisions about national security to a private organization which does not represent us and is not accountable to us. For the same reason we should not cede decisions about affordable housing to Amazon.

It might be said that we should be grateful that Amazon is addressing an urgent problem. But determining what counts as an urgent problem is itself a matter for public deliberation. Lack of action may indicate that most people consent to the status quo, or see problems with disturbing it. Perhaps they are wrong, but that is the price of living in a democratic society.

How the problem should be addressed is also a matter for public deliberation. Building more affordable housing is one solution. Another is loosening zoning restrictions, including height limits on buildings. Why let Amazon choose the path?

A common trope is we need corporations’ help because our government is paralyzed and can’t act quickly. But the speed at which our government works is up to us. Our current system is designed to work slowly. There are good reasons for this, but if we are not satisfied with the responsiveness of our government, we can take steps to change it.

Spurning Amazon’s help on affordable housing, and other firms’ help on other problems, might seem guaranteed to make the world a worse place. Private companies have a lot of knowledge, money, and power, and can get good things done quickly.

But even assuming that Amazon addresses this problem in the best possible way, it is unfortunate that we the people are not addressing it. It signals a breakdown in our ability to act collectively. We should be concerned that we are helping to create a future where we have to beg corporations and other private actors to solve our problems instead of solving them ourselves. If we develop an overreliance on the benevolence of organizations, where will we be if the next CEO alters course?

My point is not that corporations like Amazon and other powerful private actors should stay out of politics. Rather, they should put their knowledge, money, and power to use in the right ways. They should support, not usurp, democratic processes.

Jeffrey Moriarty is professor of philosophy and interim director of the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University.