I am a bit late mentioning this, but last week an Economist blogger used the Chick-Fil-A controversy to offer some vital critiques of corporate social responsibility:
Though several local "kiss-ins" were granted cursory coverage, for balance, the sight of lines of conservative Houstonians snaking around area Chick-fil-A franchises had our local news squads almost frothing with excitement. One elderly woman was captured on camera declaring Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A's president, "my hero" for making a stand against same-sex marriage. Waiting in wilting heat to uphold family values and honour a hero by eating a chicken sandwich was really the least she could do.
It's my view that this sort of skirmish in the culture wars is an inevitable consequence of trends in "ethical consumption" and "corporate social responsibility". Conservatives sceptical of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement have often charged that CSR is a stalking horse for liberal causes that have failed to get traction through ordinary political channels. This charge finds some support, I think, in the fact that few in the media seem to see Chick-fil-A's Christian-influenced culture and business practices as an example of CSR, though obviously it is. Doesn't the demand that corporations act responsibly in the interests of society, in ways other than profit-seeking, directly imply that corporate leaders who find same-sex marriage socially irresponsible should do something or other to discourage it? ...
Matters of moral truth aside, what's the difference between buying a little social justice with your coffee and buying a little Christian traditionalism with your chicken? There is no difference. Which speaks to my proposition that CSR, when married to norms of ethical consumption, will inevitably incite bouts of culture-war strife. CSR with honest moral content, as opposed to anodyne public-relations campaigns about "values", is a recipe for the politicisation of production and sales. But if we also promote politicised consumption, we're asking consumers to punish companies whose ideas about social responsibility clash with our own. ...
I'd suggest the best arena for moral disagreement is not the marketplace, but our intellectual and democratic institutions.
Go read the whole thing, please.
The point strikes me as irrefutable. It exposes the inherently value-laden content of the CSR movement, which implicitly equates social responsibility with left-liberal values. Given the left's propensity for protest and boycotts, CSR has also gone hand in hand with related movements like efforts to keep big box chain stores out of progressive strongholds like Berkeley or Madison. And all was well.
But now perhaps the gander is sampling the goose's sauce. The Chick-fil-A case may finally wake conservatives up to the potentiality for demanding socially responsible action by corporations that advance our values.
How about using Rule 14a-8 to put forward a shareholder proposal at drug companies that make abortifacients (or, for us true pro-lifers, drugs or equipment used to effect the death penalty)? How about insisting that corporations not fund left leaning activist groups? After all, do not "progressive" CSR types want corporation to stop funding the American Legislative Exchange Council? How about shareholder proposals at movie companies asking the board of directors to assess the social impact of violant and sexual images?
The bottom line is that CSR has always been about advancing the left-liberal political and social agenda. Anything departing from that agenda is demonized as "irresponsible" and companies pursuing such policies find themselves being vilified by the left and their media allies, just as Chick-Fil-A did.
The Economist's blogger worries that the culture wars will now come to consumer purchasing decisions, as consumers seek to push corporations to behave in ways they believe to be socially responsible. My point herein is that that shipped sailed a long time ago, but the fight so far has been one-sided. Only the left has been using CSR to advance its agenda. But in doing so, they have created a template for those of us on the right to turn their own tools against them.
If I had my druthers as a corporate law policy guru, I would require corporations to live by Milton Friedman's command that their sole social responsibility is to increase profits.
If we're going to live in a CSR world, however, I would prefer that corporations recognize that their social responsibility is to defend economic freedom. As I wrote in Community and Statism: A Conservative Contractarian Critique of Progressive Corporate Law Scholarship:
As a societal decision-making norm, the economic freedom to pursue wealth does more than just expand the economic pie. A legal system that pursues wealth maximization necessarily must allow individuals freedom to pursue the accumulation of wealth. Economic liberty, in turn, is a necessary concomitant of personal liberty—the two have almost always marched hand in hand. The pursuit of wealth has been a major factor in destroying arbitrary class distinctions, moreover, by enhancing personal and social mobility. At the same time, the manifest failure of socialist systems to deliver reasonable standards of living has undermined their viability as an alternative to democratic capitalist societies in which wealth maximization is a paramount societal goal. Accordingly, it seems fair to argue that the economic liberty to pursue wealth is an effective means for achieving a variety of moral ends.
In turn, the modern public corporation has turned out to be a powerful engine for focusing the efforts of individuals to maintain the requisite sphere of economic liberty. Those whose livelihood depends on corporate enterprise cannot be neutral about political systems. Only democratic capitalist societies permit voluntary formation of private corporations and allot them a sphere of economic liberty within which to function, which gives those who value such enterprises a powerful incentive to resist both statism and socialism. Because tyranny is far more likely to come from the public sector than the private, those who for selfish reasons strive to maintain both a democratic capitalist society and, of particular relevance to the present argument, a substantial sphere of economic liberty therein serve the public interest. As Michael Novak observes, private property and freedom of contract were “indispensable if private business corporations were to come into existence.” In turn, the corporation gives “liberty economic substance over and against the state.”
Defending those propositions strikes me as the most socially responsible thing a corporation can do today.