Taking a cue from John Lennon, BusinessWeek is imagining “a world in which socially responsible and eco-friendly practices actually boost a company’s bottom line.” (BusinessWeek: January 29, 2007). The article cites socially responsible CEO’s leading the way to this future such as:
Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric Co., who is betting billions to position GE as a leading innovator in everything from wind power to hybrid engines. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., long assailed for its labor and global sourcing practices, has made a series of high-profile promises to slash energy use overall…GlaxoSmithKline, discovered that, by investing to develop drugs for poor nations, it can work more effectively with those governments to make sure its patents are protected.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) advocates and business magazines point to these companies and claim that CSR is not only the right thing to do, it also enhances profits. These companies can “do well by doing good!” Such simplistic claims miss the grander danger that CSR, as a movement, represents.
CSR activists start the discussion with the answer: GE should invest in wind power; Wal-Mart should pay its workers more. By its very name, “Corporate Social Responsibility” activists are advocating the socially responsible position. If you disagree with CSR policies, you are obviously socially irresponsible. The CSR activists’ policies forget one fundamental fact of life that dooms their policies from the start: scarcity.
Our world is plagued with scarcity: resources are scarce, talent is scarce, capital is scarce, and perhaps most importantly knowledge is scarce. Society’s fundamental question is how best to combine its scarce resources in order to create the things we need and the things we want. Experience has shown that the most effective way for society to combine these scarce resources is to establish and protect basic economic freedoms. The most fundamental of these freedoms is for individuals to have well defined rights over their own personal property – whether it is their land, their labor, their machines, or their equities. These rights must include the knowledge that their property will not be arbitrarily stolen from them by either other citizens or the government itself. Of course the government has the right to impose certain restrictions – for instance a prohibition on dumping radioactive materials – but these need to be well defined in advance and not changed in an arbitrary manner.