Why we should be leery of companies entering political fray
Many corporations are speaking out against the recent changes to voting laws. Delta, Coca-Cola, and Merck in Georgia, and American Airlines and Dell in Texas, have all weighed in and more are likely to follow.
Their efforts are being praised by some given the scant evidence of voter fraud, and how the new laws will make it difficult or impossible for some legitimate voters to cast their ballots. Seen in a certain light, the new legislation looks like sour grapes from the losing side.
Yet no one should be cheering corporations’ political activity.
In the first place, these corporations are exercising disproportionate political power. When the wealthy and powerful want to speak, legislators take their calls and invite them to dinner. This strikes at the ideal of equality that lies at the heart of democracy. Liberals chafe at the outsize influence of Charles Koch and conservatives lament the influence of Tom Steyer and George Soros. When corporations enter the political fray, they become part of the problem.
You might say that corporations have a voice and if they want to use it, that’s their right. But think for a moment about who is speaking. It’s not the corporation itself, nor their employees or shareholders. It is an executive or two at the top who decides what issues the corporation will address, and what it will say. Who is the executive to make these decisions, and then drape himself or herself in the mantle of “the corporation” to offer his or her opinions? The executive was hired to run a company, not to opine on political matters.
The situation would be different if the corporation were a political entity, like the Sierra Club or the NRA. The heads of those organizations can claim to speak on behalf of their members. People join them with the sole purpose of making their voices heard on political issues. But people agree to work for or invest in Delta or Coca-Cola for economic reasons, not political ones.
We might be happy when corporations are on our side. But they won’t always be on our side. Usually, corporations will be on their own side, using their influence for private gain, and their gain, through tax breaks, etc., may come at our expense, as individual taxpayers are left with either reduced public services or paying an outsized portion to keep them. We should not encourage corporations to get even more involved in politics than they already are.
There is another reason to be wary of corporate political activity. The 18th century French writer Voltaire said: “Go into the London Stock Exchange – a more respectable place than many a court – and you will see representatives from all nations gathered together for the utility of men. Here Jew, Muslim, and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt.” Voltaire’s point was that business has the power to bring different kinds of people together. But if corporations start choosing sides, then business is just another forum in which people can self-segregate.
Already places of worship, neighborhoods, and news feeds, are divided by political affiliation. It would be a mistake to add corporations to this list. The U.S. is a large and diverse country. We really have no choice but to live together, despite our differences. Doing business together teaches us that we are not so divided as politicians at times may want to convey or even exploit.
You might say that corporations had no choice. The public demanded that Delta, Coca-Cola, Merck, and others weigh in on election laws and that remaining silent would draw more ire than speaking out. To the extent that this is true, then we are to blame. This is not something we should ask of corporations and certainly those which remain on the sidelines should not be castigated.
Plenty of corporations have abstained from this and other political controversies. In the current political environment, this can take courage, and deserves our respect. Rather than pressuring more companies to join the chorus, we should question those seeking solos.
Jeffrey Moriarty is executive director of the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics and a professor of philosophy at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.
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