Progressive politics, ideas & culture


The Corporation Revisited 2: Heath responds to letters

This Magazine Staff

Hope everyone has done his or her homework! To give you a bit more to chew on, what follows are Joe Heath’s brief responses to the letters to the editor in the current issue of This Magazine.
On a related topic: I went to the Fifth Avenue cinemas on Burrard Street last night to catch one of the 16 daily showings of F*911, the new Michael Moore doc. As I was standing in line outside, a group of people walked by and one of them yelled, “stop giving your money to Michael Moore’s lies!”
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see the film, as all the evening showings were sold out until 11:30pm. I’ll try again today.
OK, on to Joe’s replies. Original letters are in italics, Joe’s stuff follows in roman text.

Now that I know about Joseph Heath’s understanding of what is wrong with the film version of The Corporation (“Ideological indecision,” May/June), and Andrew Potter’s understanding of what is wrong with the book, I look forward to reading an account of their understanding of the solutions to this mess. Brydon Gombay Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec
This one is a little odd, since Brydon is an acquaintance of mine, and she presumably knows that I’ve written a book (The Efficient Society) explaining my proposed solution.

In his review of the film The Corporation (“Ideological Indecision,” May/June) Joseph Heath commits the fallacy of false alternatives, which is surprising for a philosopher. The alternative to a private-sector economy is not necessarily a publicly owned one. Nor is it the case that private ownership cannot be the problem if public ownership is not the solution. Consequently, there is no reason for Heath to expect the film to come to such a definite conclusion. The pursuit of private profit may provide innovation and efficiency. It may not be the root of all evil, however, in order to prevent it from becoming so, the economic libertarianism of Milton Friedman et al must be restrained by enforceable regulations rather than by expropriation or nationalization.
That would seem a reasonable interpretation of the film’s message and it leaves the filmmakers neither “grasping at straws” nor “engaging in wishful thinking.”
Theo Meijer Sidney, British Columbia
As a philosopher, I take great care to avoid “reading in” reasonable views to people who are advancing unreasonable ones. It is important to remember that the film The Corporation presents Milton Friedman in a positive light. This is because the filmmakers agree with Friedman that government regulation and corporate social responsibility are window-dressing, since they do not change the fundamental orientation of the corporation toward profit. Their only disagreement is that Friedman thinks profit is good, while the filmmakers think profit is bad. The core argument of the film, repeated ad nauseum, is that the profit motive of the firm is the root of all the evils of capitalism, and thus any reform that leaves the profit orientation of firms in place simply fails to address the deep structural problem of the system. The film does not say one single positive word about regulation as a possible solution to the evils of the free market. The filmmakers do not celebrate the fact that Union Oil is subject to stricter environmental regulation, thanks to the lobbying efforts of environmental groups. What they celebrate is the group of citizens seeking to have Union Oil’s corporate charter revoked.
Because of the uncompromising nature of this critique of capitalism, the filmmakers essentially paint themselves into a corner. If you are committed to abolishing the profit motive, then you need to either endorse some form of massively state-dominated system of economic planning, or else sketch out some blueprint for a system that will retain the price system in the absence of a profit motive (i.e. some form of market socialism). If, however, you are willing to make peace with the profit motive (as I am, and obviously the letter-writer is too), then of course a world of possibilities emerges. There are plenty of alternatives available to the Left, or more broadly, to those who hope to make our society more just, and ecologically more sustainable. It is only those who insist on adhering to the old-school Marxian critique of capitalism that lack alternatives.
I suppose dissing Stevie Cameron (“The unravelling of Stevie Cameron,” May/June) and The Corporation—documentary and book—is an example of This Magazine’s “fair and balanced” reporting, and means I don’t need to read the National Post to find out what the right is thinking. However, regarding The Corporation, the conclusion by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter that the left thinks “profit is evil” is unfounded and misleading. The realistic fear of many people is that big business will use any means to achieve its goal of ever-increasing profits. Bob Forsey St. John’s, Newfoundland
My impression, over the years, has been that the majority of Leftist do think that profit is evil. Am I alone here? For example, the little sneer that appears under Jack Layton’s moustache when he uses the expression “private, for-profit health care,” somehow led me to believe that he disapproved of the profit motive. Maybe that was just me. Or when generations of socialists talked about the exploitation of workers, it seemed to me that exploitation was understood to be a bad thing (exploitation, in the economic sense of the term, being just another way of referring to profit).
But what about the fear that big business will use any means to achieve ever-increasing profits? Here is where my most profound objection to The Corporation arises – and where the real intellectual dishonesty of the film lies. Most people who like capitalism do so not because they think profit is great, but because they accept some version of Adam Smith’s invisible hand argument. In other words, they don’t think that profit itself is intrinsically good, they think that the competition between profit-oriented private firms generates overall consequences that are beneficial for society at large (largely because of the price system that emerges). Negative effects emerge when this competition in inappropriately structured. Thus the focus of reform should be on making sure that the rules of the game are well-structured, and not on abolishing the profit motive. Now of course, there are a thousand different objections and debates that one could get into about the merits of these sorts of invisible hand arguments. What is scandalous about The Corporation is that it does not even address the core issue. In other words, the film simply skips over the central argument for capitalism, which has dominated debate for over 200 years. (It is mentioned exactly once, when it is lampooned in a segment of 1950’s “Leave it to Beaver”-style cinema.) Talk about preaching to the choir.
So while I too am worried about big business using “any means” to achieve increased profits, I don’t think the problem can be fixed by eliminating the search for profit (I’ve expanded on these views at much greater length in a paper found here. The solution rather is to limit the range of means that firms can employ in their eternal search for profit.

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