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Facebook’s the latest example that we must rewrite laws on corporate harm

Whistleblower Frances Haugen has likened the behavior of Facebook to that of the tobacco industry’s 50-year effort to obscure the deadly nature of cigarettes while knowingly contributing to the deaths of more than 20 million people. However, although the tobacco industry is the most widely recognized example of an industry profiting at the expense of the health and wellbeing of Americans, it is just one of many instances in which we allow corporations to harm our wellbeing with impunity.  

Between 1999 and 2016, corruption in the pharmaceutical industry contributed to the overdose deaths of 630,000 people from prescription opioids (or heroin, when people could no longer get prescriptions).  

The gun industry’s marketing and lobbying to prevent any controls on gun access contribute to Americans having a homicide rate that is 25 times higher than the average of 23 other high-income companies. 

The food industry markets unhealthful food to children and adults that leads to 500,000 Americans dying each year due to unhealthful eating habits. 

The Great Recession of 2008, resulted in millions of people being unemployed, cost the world economy trillions of dollars and contributed to suicides and cancer deaths. It was due to the success of the financial industry in developing new investment instruments that escaped the regulation

And then there is the fossil fuel industry. Until recently they have been able to obscure their contribution to climate change, thanks to their use of tobacco industry obfuscation techniques. But the evidence of the extreme, worldwide harm that awaits us indicates that they may yet win the prize as the most harmful industry.  

American corporations have escaped regulation thanks to the success of advocacy for free market economics. According to the view that was promulgated in the second half of the 20th century, if a business is making a profit, it must be benefiting society. This belief stems from Adam Smith’s insight that a baker who is motivated to make a better or cheaper bread may benefit their community without having the intent to do so. 

There is no doubt that market forces can motivate innovations that benefit society; if you do not believe it, you should hand in your cell phone. However, in the interest of preventing any regulation of corporate practices, free market advocacy has taken us to a place we would never have chosen to go. It is as though the invisible hand is that of the grim reaper. 

The forces for unregulated corporations continue to have the upper hand. Each of the harmful industries I describe has benefited from the default assumption that regulation is inherently bad. Movements have arisen to demand regulation of each of these industries, but they find themselves trying to carve out exceptions to the general rule that regulation is harmful.  

There is a better way. All of the organizations that are working to stop one or another of these harms need to join together to advocate for laws that require systematic monitoring of the impact of corporate practices and that ensure that no practice that produces widespread harm produces any profit. If the pharmaceutical companies that were marketing opioids had faced confiscation of all of their profits in the first few years of the opioid epidemic, those practices would have ended. Instead the fines they paid were just the cost of doing business. 

The principle I propose is foundational for evolving a society that ensures every person’s wellbeing. If this is to be a nation that “promotes the general welfare and secures the blessing of liberty,” we need to evaluate every corporate enterprise in light of its impact on all of us.

Anthony Biglan, Ph.D., is a member of the Board and the Executive Committee of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives and a senior scientist at Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, Ore.

Tags Adam Smith Advertising corporate regulation Facebook Facebook Frances Haugen Pharmaceutical industry Pharmaceutical sciences Tobacco

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