In October, ID at IIT's About, With, and For conference in Chicago will focus on social responsibility. It was also a module in AIGA Harvard Business School. The target of all this social responsibility is corporations. While it is important for corporations to be responsible citizens of the world, there is an inherent danger, especially in the US, in leaving the "greater good" up to corporations.
One of the most important documentaries that I rewatch occasionally is The Corporation by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan. The premise is that since the corporation is a legally defined person, what kind a person is it. The answer is that the corporation is a sociopath. Now, reinforcing social responsibility has become the treatment for the corporation's pathology. Even in the documentary, they show the efforts of Ray Anderson of Interface to make carpet manufacturing more sustainable. And in my corporate consulting days, I would even try to get my clients to be more sociallly responsible by pointing out how they have no social responsibility heading and content on their website. (This was actually effective in terms of getting clients to think about what they are doing in that area.)
Yet with all the emphasis on the corporation as the beacon of social responsiblity, there seems to be a deemphasis on government, which by charter is responsible for the greater good of society by protecting the weak and insuring the sustainability of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, one of the key distinctions between the US and Europe is the extent to which the seat of power in the US lies with corporations not the government. By handing over social responsibility to corporations, do we let the US government off the hook?
As I have shifted my primary focus from corporate clients to government and non-profits, I have rediscovered the power of government. What I mean is that I have become deeply aware of the extent to which government regulations do effect significant changes in human possibilities and people's behaviors. It is one thing to say that "Voting counts" but another to see the tremendous shifts in priorities when one adminstration replaces another. But as the anxieties about the upcoming mid-term elections demonstrate, there is a certain accountability to the people in government that does not exist in the same way to corporations.
It is this lack of accountability that makes me nervous about the all the efforts to make corporations more responsible for social responsibility. This is not to say that there should not be efforts. Corporations do and ought be be more responsive to and responsible for the long term impacts of their decisions. But we must not forget that legally, corporations are accountable only to their shareholders and democractic processes need to be increased in that area.
Government, for better or worse, is the best system we have to ensure social responsibility and the "greater good." Because government is accountable to the people much moreso than corporations. So when we talk about social responsibilty, we should make sure that we talk about government as well.