Is Corporate Vigilantism a Threat to Democracy?

Is Corporate Vigilantism a Threat to Democracy?
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File
Is Corporate Vigilantism a Threat to Democracy?
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File
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A serious issue has gained prominence in modern society the last few years: The executives and/or founders of large companies increasingly consider it their civic and moral duty to use the influences and powers of their businesses to censor or suppress political and/or inconvenient ideas they do not support or find offensive. This mindset is reflected in the following statement from PayPal CEO Daniel Schulman: "Businesses need to be a force for good in those values and issues that they believe in." Taken in isolation, this is a very good philosophy. However, one needs to also examine the implications of it in practice.

Recently, PayPal decided to stop processing financial transactions for customers it deemed to have hateful political views. Not long ago, MasterCard and Visa refused to process any donations to David Horowitz’s Freedom Center, a conservative nonprofit. The crime? Horowitz had personal and/or political views that were judged by the credit card companies to be hateful. YouTube has banned some Prager University (PragerU) videos (PragerU is not a higher learning institution, but a nonprofit that promulgates conservative views.) Selected content from conservatives, Christian and some liberal-leaning groups has also been removed from social media and the accounts of the targets were deleted or deactivated.

The motivation for these actions is the desire of the executives of these companies to be “good” by punishing the “bad.” These executives, and their supporters, declare that their actions are protected by the laws of the United States of America, which they claim permit them to run their private businesses any way they deem fit.

Two questions need to be asked. First, does a private business have a boundary? If so, where is it? These are critical questions that need to be answered. Without defining the boundary of the modern business, we are likely going to alter, in negative ways, the civic foundations of our society. I do agree that a business should be allowed to have maximum freedom to be run as its founder sees fit. However, I also believe that the boundary of a business has to be limited to its business charter.  PayPal has a charter to process payments for society; it does not have a charter to make society “good.”

I argue that many of the well-intentioned actions taken by executives of large corporations fall under what one could call corporate vigilantism. In a notable academic analysis, Les Johnston identified six criteria that are common to most vigilantism. (1) there is planning and premeditation by those engaged in such actions; (2) the actors are private citizens acting voluntarily; (3) the actors view their actions as “autonomous citizenship”; (4) the actors use or threaten to use force and pressure against targets; (5) the actors go into action to protect an established or new order from actual, potential or imputed transgressions; (6) the actors aim to control crime or other social infractions.

It should be noted that vigilantism is not new. It is likely the most popular form of justice in countries in which there are no mature civil institutions. However, vigilantism is a danger wherever it is found. There are three reasons for this. First is that it violates a basic organizing principle of society -- namely, that institutions are only allowed to perform duties for which they have a societal mandate. There is no known societal law or mandate that empowers a corporate executive to be the vanguard of moral actions, choices and speech in society.

Second, vigilantism violates the essential principle of separation of powers, which is so essential to the norms of justice. In most vigilante processes, the same institution or group of people constitutes the judge, jury and executioner. Hence, the vigilante system has, by design, inherent, embedded and systemic biases.

Third, the vigilante process is not equipped to recognize its own biases. When asked about how PayPal, in collaboration with the controversial Southern Poverty Law Center, determines when to decline services to customers, Schulman told the Wall Street Journal: "We don't always agree. We have our debates with [SPLC]. We are very respectful with everyone coming in. We will do the examination carefully. We'll talk when we don't agree with a finding: We understand why you think that way, but it still goes into the realm of free speech for us." Despite this claim of evenhandedness, however, the majority of blocked customers are right-leaning groups and individuals.

A common protest is raised when one questions corporate vigilantism. People often respond by asking, “But, it is their business, isn’t it?” Yes, it is. But, society still has a role to play if and when the pursuit of private business’s self-interest is in conflict with major interests of its customers or the public.  That is why regulations were enacted when we realized that private businesses were polluting rivers and other water resources. That is why the new, and stricter, European General Data Protection Regulation was enacted. That is why there is a process whereby new drugs have to be vetted and approved by a neutral party, such as the Food and Drug Administration, before they can be sold to the public. What do these actions have in common? They all involve the establishment of mechanisms that limit the authority of large organizations to exercise their freedom at the expense of the freedoms of others.  

There is no debate that an executive of a company could support a political candidate or give money to any cause she/he pleases to do. The executive can also hire and fire anyone that she/he pleases. But this is quite different from what we see in corporate vigilantism. We hear about an executive of a corporation threatening to withdraw its businesses from a state because of perceived political and/or moral transgressions by people there. Or we read about an executive threatening to abandon or exclude a state from its expansion plans if and when a political organ of the state votes for the “wrong” cause or the “wrong” policy. These are some of the most dangerous kinds of politicization that can occur in a society. There is little difference between such corporate vigilantism and what we call corruption. What would you say if a politician promised to give voters money -- if they vote a certain way? What would you think of a company that threatened to punish voters if they dared to vote a certain way?

We have had no laws curbing corporate vigilantism in the United States. This is because most business founders knew and/or believed that one should not mix politics and business. Unfortunately, things have changed. For a large corporation today, there is little or no penalty for using one’s near-monopolistic position to shut down the freedoms of others.

The spirit of vigilantism that makes a restaurant owner eject a customer who holds different political views is the same mindset that prompts executives of some large corporations to punish opinions, choices and actions that they do not like. The only difference is in the type and scope of harm done. Vigilantism corrupts free democratic societies, sooner or later, if action is not taken to curb it.

Nick Dedeke teaches information management courses at a New England university.

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