Business and Government: Lobbying vs Capitulating

Should the public be more worried when powerful corporations try to sway government, or when they capitulate to them?

Or, to put it another way, if the public worries when big business lobbies government, should it also worry when big business lobbies government to protect something the public cares about, such as privacy?

Case in point: Google, Facebook, Apple, and other tech companies have joined forces to launch a new campaign aimed at curtailing government use of the companies’ networks and data for surveillance and intelligence purposes. The campaign included an open letter to US President Barack Obama asking for tighter controls on government’s attempts to access information gathered and retained by the companies in the course of business. Privacy advocates are bound to be pleased, given the enormous quantity of information the companies hold, and the previously unimagined level of access that we now realize the US government in particular has been seeking, and obtaining.

But this move means that these massive corporations are trying to shift government policy on a particular issue. They are, in other words, lobbying. And lobbying is an activity that makes a lot of people uncomfortable: they worry that corporations, with their slick hired-gun lobbyists and their deep pockets, are simply too influential and too liable to get their way too often. Indeed, some people think corporate lobbying should be outlawed. Many more think there should be serious limits on what corporations can do, and in particular on what they can spend, to try to get their way.

So which makes us more uncomfortable: the idea of big business collaborating with government (whether in the US or in China), or the idea of big business using its persuasive powers to resist government?

Of course, we don’t necessarily have to choose. Some will want to eat their cake and have it too. Corporate influence is usually bad, they’ll say. But this time is different. This time, corporations are fighting the good fight. In trying to get Big Brother to stop peeking in the window, they’ll say, these internet giants are fighting on the side of right.

That’s an awkward position to hold if you’re used to arguing against the evils of corporate influence. It’s a bit like watching the town bully beat up someone who really deserved it: you might well like the outcome today, but still be worried that there’s someone in town with that much punching power, and that much willingness to use it. And note the difficulty of putting in place any limit on lobbying that allows public-good lobbying but forbid narrow, self-interested lobbying: the distinction is far too subjective, and it if far too difficult to determine from the outside just what a corporation’s interest are, in the eyes of internal strategists.

In the end, I come down on the side of a relatively permissive set of standards. We should keep worrying, and stay watchful, but in the end it is better that tens of thousands of corporations try to influence government — all pulling in slightly different directions — than that they all mindlessly bend to government’s will.

2 comments so far

  1. Curt Day on

    Regarding corporations lobbying to sway gov’t, we have plenty of examples where big business uses its influence to direct the gov’t to follow policies that are beneficial to the business. Many of these instance involve trade agreements or interventions–ITT and Chile in ’73 and United Fruit and Guatemala in ’54 are just old time examples. The war against Iraq benefitted how many businesses especially considering the billions of dollars unaccounted for while Bremer was in charge there. So who’s to say that we don’t have corporations that favor increased surveillance on the public?

    In addition to contending for favorable foreign policies, many corporate lobbyists work to obtain tax loopholes or gov’t contracts.

    In any case, if we are leery about the consolidation of power, we should also be uneasy with the accumulation of wealth since power follows wealth. And this is important to this article here because the more our representatives make decisions based on why they receive from lobbyists, the less they will make decisions based on the interests of the people. We should also note the impetus for the companies you mentioned that are looking to modify surveillance were concern over lawsuits and bad publicity all of which can come with increased surveillance.

    Finally, should we put gov’t regulating business practices in the same league with gov’t trying to force cooperation from businesses in increasing surveillance in our country?

  2. […] Business ethicist Chris MacDonald notes that sometimes we approve when big corporations lobby the government, and sometimes we don’t. What principles should help us decide? […]

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