Would you spy on Chinese dissidents for money?
I wouldn’t, and not because I don’t like money or because I think I’m an angelic person who goes far beyond the call of normal morality. Most people just aren’t that low — at least as long as they exist in a broader social context that’s supportive of decent behavior.
But then there’s Google, which after years of resistance has decided to develop a censored search engine called Dragonfly destined for the Chinese market. According to Ryan Gallagher’s blockbuster scoop, Dragonfly “links users’ searches to their personal phone numbers, thus making it easier for the Chinese government to monitor people’s queries.”
It’s not as if Google or its founders are exactly hard up for cash. But the Chinese market is very big and very lucrative, and ultimately, the lure of getting into it proved too large. But of course, once Google crosses this bridge and proves willing to provide this service to the enormous and lucrative Chinese markets, then smaller authoritarian regimes — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, maybe Venezuela, Russia, etc. — that didn’t have this level of market power are going to want it too.
So why is this happening? Well, a big part of it is that while normal people like us live in a morality-supporting social context where if I told people, “I’m going to make some extra cash by helping autocratic regimes spy on their citizens,” they’d be appalled, Google exists in the opposite kind of context. The stock market cares about profits and nothing else, and the prevailing wisdom in corporate America is that shareholder values trump all other considerations. Google is worth discussing in this regard not because it’s an unusually immoral corporation, but because at the behest of co-founder Sergey Brin, it held out much longer than most of corporate America.
But eventually, the inexorable logic of shareholder value will grind down everyone and anything unless something is done about it.
Beyond sociopath economics
The debate around Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act turned rather swiftly to arguing about the specifics of her plan to let workers at large companies elect 40 percent of corporate board members. That’s an important idea. But I also think it’s important to understand it as just one of several suggestions for trying to change the culture of American business away from this relentless focus on shareholder value.
And I think that’s crucial, much more so than any specific legal change.
Now, of course, formally speaking, the way we’re supposed to handle problems in the shareholder value world is that the government makes rules. If we think it’s bad for US tech companies to build censorship tools for autocracies, we could write a law making it illegal. But the Obama Labor Department wrote a regulation that made it illegal for investment adviser firms to deliberately give clients bad advice. The investment adviser firms lobbied against the rule and delayed its implementation, and then when Donald Trump became president, they successfully lobbied to kill it.
According to shareholder value theory, they were obliged to lobby to kill the rule. And now that the rule is dead, they are obliged to try to earn a quick buck by deliberately giving clients bad advice.
That’s just no way for a society to organize itself. The profit motive and market exchange are powerful tools for advancing prosperity. But there is a difference between earning a profit by providing a useful service to your customers and earning a profit by duping your customers. There’s no feasible way to make every instance of duping illegal, but we can realistically imagine a society in which people who rip off customers for money face social opprobrium.
Indeed, it’s a reenforcing cycle. Most Google staff seems mildly discontented about Dragonfly. But if everyone’s assumption is that businesses have to do what’s best for the bottom line, then the staff will get over it and making Dragonfly really will be what’s best for the bottom line. But if Google employees’ understanding is that business is an area for moral action and executives have a real option to say no to being evil, then a decision to deliberately choose evil would meaningfully hurt Google in the Silicon Valley war for talent. And that would be a business reason to avoid being evil.
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