In the battle between conservatives and progressives, we are generally presented with a false dilemma. We are expected to choose between two positions: 1. Corporate greed is evil. 2. Profit is what drives innovation and improvements to our standards of living. Unfortunately, it is the progressives who are making the mistake here. Greed is only a problem because it results in human rights abuses, criminality, and grave injustice. We do better to focus on the abuses rather than the rather nebulous harm of greed itself.
When I talk to conservatives about specific instances of corporate criminality, they generally acknowledge that something should be done in such cases. For example, seven court cases from 1997 to 2008 resulted in convictions for slavery in Florida. Those convicted of slavery “threatened the immigrants, held their identification documents, created debit accounts they couldn’t repay and hooked them on alcohol to keep them working.” The workers were also beaten and forced to live in substandard conditions.
As the accounts of slavery came to light, activists organized and demanded that restaurants pay more for tomatoes in order to provide an actual wage for tomato workers. By May 2008, Burger King had joined McDonalds and Yum! Brands in meeting the demands of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and paying more for tomatoes. It was a notable success, but the activism of the CIW continues. After progressive strides with fast-food restaurants, the coalition ran in to resistance from grocery giant Publix, which refused to join any agreements to improve working conditions. In 2010, a Publix spokesperson said, “If there are some atrocities going on, it is not our business.” Publix has not budged yet, but the Coalition of Immokalee Workers continue their work and will receive 2013 Freedom from Want Medal from the Roosevelt Institute.
When progressives argue that corporate greed leads to great evil, they may be correct, but they make it too easy for conservatives to simply point out all the innovation and convenience the profit motive has produced. When we argue against slavery, however, we force conservatives to either defend slavery or admit that the industry must be reformed in one way or another. It is not likely that progressives and conservatives will agree on what kind of reform is necessary, but at least the conversation has begun with some possibility of tangible results, as we see in the case of the Immokalee workers. Knowing of specific abuses, such as in the FoxConn factory in China or the sweatshops in Bangladesh, most consumers, both progressives and conservatives, demand reform, and corporations do listen to them. Progress is slow and frustrating, but it is progress.
It may be possible that severe and systemic structural reforms are required to eliminate slavery and other forms of corporate abuse, but it is the abuse and the desire to eliminate abuse that must motivate the change.