Business [en]

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  1. y’a un article pas trop mal dans TheEconomist de la semaine dernière:
    qui résume
    Pour ceux qui ne sont pas abonés, ou qui ne connaissent pas M. Stallman:

    Why ‘corporate social responsibility’ is not a welcome fashion

    IT IS more than 200 years since Adam Smith observed that people enjoy
    their daily bread thanks not to the benevolence of their baker, but to his
    selfish pursuit of profit. In that observation and its implications lies
    the case for market capitalism. In their economic lives, people behave as
    though they had no regard for the public good. Yet the outcome, through
    the operation of the invisible hand, serves the public good better than
    any social planner could ever do.

    Nowadays the triumph of the market is taken for granted. But this victory
    is far from complete — because Smith’s insight is, even now, not widely
    believed. Social progress is still thought to issue not from
    profit-seeking behaviour, nor even from enlightened government policy
    (current orthodoxy, after all, frowns on too much of that), but from the
    benevolence of the baker. Companies are enjoined to do more than serve
    their customers and make money. Instead they must be ‘good corporate
    citizens’; they must attend to the needs of their ‘stakeholders’; they
    must contribute to ‘sustainable development’; they must strive to ‘raise
    standards’ at home and abroad. Increasingly, companies respond to these
    admonitions, or affect to, with zeal.

    So firmly has this view taken root that only a brave man would be willing
    to go on record against it. In a new booklet for the Institute of Economic
    Affairs*, David Henderson, formerly the chief economist at the OECD, has
    dared to risk the wrath of right-thinking people everywhere. He is not
    content to argue, as timid waverers might, that the new commitment to
    corporate social responsibility is a sham, behind which the search for
    profit carries on as before, leaving capitalism in good shape after all.
    Still less is he willing to argue that paying lip-service to corporate
    social responsibility may actually do some social good–albeit less than
    its more enthusiastic supporters would advocate. Mr Henderson claims,
    rather, that the fad for corporate social responsibility is doing real
    harm. The appropriate response, in his view, is not to laugh at it or
    tolerate it, but to recognise it for the danger it is and oppose it.

    Part of the harm that the notion causes, according to Mr Henderson, is
    intellectual. Advocates of corporate social responsibility–meaning the
    explicit adoption by companies of economic, environmental and social
    goals, as opposed merely to making profits for the company’s owners–start
    with a basic failure to understand why capitalism works. That provides a
    foundation on which many other towering misconceptions can be constructed.
    Thus, belief in corporate social responsibility goes hand in hand with
    what Mr Henderson calls ‘global salvationism’–an apocalyptic pessimism
    about the planet’s environmental prospects and the outlook for global
    poverty. Capitalism is in crisis. The remedy is not government: that’s
    socialism, which is discredited, and governments are powerless these days
    anyway, aren’t they? The remedy is morality in the boardroom.

    All this deflects attention from some important, if inconvenient, facts:
    the planet is not approaching environmental catastrophe; the proportion of
    people living in poverty has fallen faster thanks to capitalist
    industrialisation than ever before in history; and governments still have
    as much power to collect taxes and conduct social policy as they ever did.
    Advocates of corporate social responsibility reply that they have no
    choice but to respond to society’s more demanding expectations of them.
    That might be a fair point, were it not for the fact that their
    capitulation to anti-profit ideology, their pandering to anti-capitalists
    and their preference for ‘enlightened co-operation’ over ruthless
    competition, is powerfully helping to shape those very expectations.

    But the problem, Mr Henderson emphasises, is not merely that the fad for
    corporate social responsibility is intellectually wrong, or that it
    poisons opinion against market capitalism. It also promotes policies that
    are directly welfare-reducing. Applying principles of corporate social
    responsibility raises costs and prices. Whether it also reduces profits
    depends on market conditions. Adopting new systems of social and
    environmental accounting imposes further burdens. If companies succeed in
    persuading or forcing their partners and suppliers to do the same, costs
    rise still further. ‘Good corporate citizenship’ does not come cheap–and
    the cost is borne by society at large, not necessarily by the managers or
    owners of the firms in question.

    The marriage of corporate social responsibility and global salvationism
    is especially pernicious. It favours additional regulation (which is no
    less harmful for coming, in the first instance, at firms’, rather than
    governments’, behest). When firms set themselves up as ‘good global
    citizens’, the next step is to demand common international standards on
    labour practices, pollution, and what have you. In a profoundly
    non-uniform world, uniform standards are a bad idea, especially for the
    poorest countries, which may be unable to support them economically. In
    seeking a level regulatory playing-field based on their ethical insights,
    rich-country ‘good global citizens’ limit competition, worsening the
    performance of the global economy as a whole and putting developing
    countries at a particular disadvantage.

    It is no advance for democracy when public policy is ‘privatised’, and
    corporate boards take it upon themselves to weigh competing social,
    economic and environmental goals. That is a job for governments, which
    remain competent to do it if they choose. And when it comes to business
    ethics, it is worth remembering that managers do not, as a rule, own the
    companies they are directing. Their first duty is to serve the people who
    are paying their salaries, so long as they stay within the law and the
    canons of ordinary decency. In the political arena, the chief executive of
    the biggest multinational has just one vote–and that is how it should be.

    * ‘Misguided Virtue: False Notions of Corporate Social Responsibility’,
    by David Henderson. Hobart paper 142. Institute of Economic Affairs,
    London. ’£12.50.

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