Recently, Bill Maher has written an article for The Huffington Post decrying some aspects of capitalism. Bill Maher is a comedian, movie maker (Religulous), writer, host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher (though he’s probably better known for hosting Politically Incorrect), and a social commentator. Though he describes himself as a libertarian, some people have doubted this and have called him a liberal. I wouldn’t say I agree with everything Maher says, but there are some pertinent things I do agree with him on.
In this recent article, Maher argues, “Not everything in America has to make a profit. It used to be that there were some services and institutions so vital to our nation that they were exempt from market pressures. Some things we just didn’t do for money.” He criticizes war profiteers, the prison-industrial complex, corporate media (which I’ve discussed here), and for-profit health care. Maher asks, “When did the profit motive become the only reason to do anything? When did that become the new patriotism?”
I think Maher may be more or less correct: the only obligation a corporation is supposed to have is to maximize self-interest (i.e. maximize profits). This is the argument that is made by free marketers such as Milton Friedman and is based on the moral theory of ethical egoism. They call this the moral economy, which I’ve criticized a bit on this blog. If the only obligation, moral or otherwise, that a corporation has is it to itself (i.e. shareholder profits), then we’re likely to end up with decidedly immoral business practices (which we hear about on the news on a daily basis). Now, there is nothing that says corporations must operate within this egoist context since they are socially constructed, but absent any change in this model then there is reason to worry about the corporatization of things like war, news, or medicine.
Should some things simply not be done for profit? Should corporations have some obligations to other stakeholders in addition to their shareholders? Are there some moral obligations that individuals and corporations have that take precedence over maximizing profits? These are questions that should be answered if we are to take seriously the issue of corporatism and the corporatization of particular social functions and institutions.