Lie, Cheat, Steal
I’ve never been a fan of the saying, “If you have nothing to hide, what are you so worried about?” Among other things, it’s used by police officers to intimidate and harass citizens who claim their rights against unwarranted searches and seizures. It’s also used as an excuse to impose costly, degrading drug tests on welfare recipients–even though it turns out that when welfare recipients are forced to test, only 2% test dirty–exponentially less than the general population. Not to mention that cronyism abounds. The question is an all around non-sequitur, in most cases, and only designed to slime an opponent.
But in the case of a 2011 strategy outlined in this leaked document (PDF) by three private security agencies which Bank of America hired to help bring down Wikileaks, the question rings exceptional: what secrets are so vital to the existence of Bank of America and similar organizations that they are worth lying, cheating and stealing to protect? Here’s an excerpt:
The document makes no bones about it. Transparency is the enemy; Wikileaks provides a mechanism for transparency; therefore, Wikileaks must be destroyed. And the fact that Bank of America is willing to employ such tactics, or even sit down with agencies like Palantir after seeing this document, is a testament not to the immorality of BoA, but to the amorality of banking institutions–and Business in general.
The Lie Of Free Market Ethics and Self-Regulation
Businesspersons know that Ethics is a cost of business–something that hinders profits. It is important for Business (aka capital) to establish the illusion that a business is concerned with things like workers’ rights, child labor, the environment and the like, because they know that consumers are concerned with such things. Legend has it that in the One True Free Market–that holiest of holies–stakeholders will hold a business accountable for their transgressions, and that if we just deregulated the whole thing, companies like Bank of America would have no choice but to be transparent, accountable and responsible. If consumers find out that my business is dumping waste into the rivers, I’ll have no choice but to cave to consumers and dispose of that waste in an ethical manner! Therefore, we can assume that businesses don’t dump waste improperly, or any of those other unethical things which poor, defenseless Business is accused of doing all the time. It would be too costly and unethical to take those risks. Right?
Well, the risk of litigation, and the risk of accountability by consumers as a mechanism for self-accountability, are not sufficient motivators for self-policing, and we see examples of it all the time. Just ask anyone who lives in the Niger Delta what they think of Shell Corporation’s ethics practices.
The way it really works for a business is simple: everything breaks down to cost vs. profit. Sometimes you have to do unethical or illegal things to save money, if it costs less than doing ethical or legal things. Profit is god here.
Here’s an example of cost vs. profit in practical Ethics, however basic and hypothetical. (This is pretty much the kind of example that you hear on the subject of Ethics and Accountability in introductory business class):
Let’s say I own a buggy whip farm, and we produce X number of tons of waste a year. It costs $10,000 to secretly and securely dump all of our waste into the river, illegally and destructively. Or we could pay a costly $40,000 to dispose of it through a waste management agency. Of course, we choose profit over expenditure. The first two years slide by and we’re doing just fine by dumping the waste into the river unnoticed. But then nasty, liberal Old Man EPA comes along and decides to take us to court for illegal dumping.
Now Old Man EPA and their litigation against us is costing an extra $50,000 a year. The bad publicity dings us another 50 grand, because a consumer watchdog group forms a boycott against us. Illegally dumping that waste just got a whole lot more expensive than doing it the stupid, bleeding-heart liberal way. The Board of Directors okays the much cheaper option of settling the case as quietly as possible, and changing over to a legal waste-dumping process. For now.
Through both consumer and (allegedly unnecessary) legal accountability, we have just seen the potential of the Magic of the One True Free Market in action. Right? Now if we could just get rid of Old Man EPA, the consumers could handle the role of holding Business accountable. The injustice of regulation knows no bounds!
Except that we know that almost no consumers have 8 hours a day to dedicate to research and activism to hold accountable these dozens of giant firms and conglomerates (we’re too busy creating nearly all wealth and owning almost none of it.) Big Business has armies of strategists, lobbyists and virtual mercenaries at their disposal. And we also know that when profit is threatened, anything goes. Lie, cheat, steal and murder. Just ask Wikileaks and their supporters. It’s a jungle out there.
This all presents a big problem for those selling the One True Free Market religion to the rest of us. If these giant corporations and conglomerates can barely, barely handle the tiny hint of responsibility we’ve allowed them now, why the hell should anyone believe that when left to their own devices, they would self-regulate and/or be regulated by consumers?
Please note that I edited the header of the second part from “The Lie of Free Markets” to the much more specific and descriptive, “The Lie of Free Market Ethics and Self-Regulation.”