Topic: Business & Commercial

Microsoft and the Spirit of Freedom

Corporations are by nature amoral and non-ethical. They don’t like to hear that, but it is undeniably true. Their purpose is to produce goods and services and make profit doing it, and the workings of corporate governance often, even usually, manage to minimize the ethical instincts of the human beings involved. When capitalism is working efficiently, the single-minded pragmatism of corporations does what it’s supposed to do, and creates opportunity, jobs, innovation and wealth. But there are many times, when profit beckons, opportunities are apparent, and the law is flexible, that corporations can be pulled by their reason for being into very ethically objectionable activities.

We’re not talking about Enron here, or even companies that have knowingly sold dangerous products here and abroad. Those kinds of activities were either illegal or so clearly wrong that the corporations that engaged in them hurt their long-term viability, sometimes fatally. Most corporations have the intelligence and foresight to see the pragmatic reasons for avoiding such conduct, whether or not ethical considerations are part of their calculations.

But when taking the road to legal and significant profits requires ignoring the deplorable activities of foreign business partners, corporate executives are less likely to take a detour. This is where the genuine enmity and loathing many social activists feel toward corporations have a lot of historical outrages to back them up. Some American companies, for example, continued to do business with Hitler’s Third Reich long after the Holocaust was underway. More recently, Unocal went blithely about its business in Southeast Asia building oil pipelines arm in arm with governments that were using slave labor to get the job done. It was profitable, you see. And, of course, legal.

Now, at a time when America is expending young lives in foreign lands to protect and spread democracy, the U. S. computing giant Microsoft is helping China suppress it. Chinese citizens using Microsoft’s MSN China portal receive an automatic message reprimanding them whenever they type in terms like “justice,” “democracy,” “freedom” or “human rights.” Then they are ordered to delete the prohibited words. This exercise in Big Brother tactics is facilitated by Microsoft, which justifies its suppression of the human spirit by explaining that this is a condition of offering services in China. You know: it’s profitable. What other choice does Microsoft have?

The choice Microsoft has is to refuse China’s business. It should refuse it because it involves complicity with an activity, like slavery and genocide, that no American country or citizen ought to support. The prime directive of maximizing corporate profits is not without limits. There can be legitimate debate about where the line should be drawn, but there should be no debate about this. If Microsoft’s leaders cannot see the ethical reasons to stay out of such activities, then the American public may well give it a pragmatic reason by making it clear that citizens of a free society will not patronize businesses that help make freedom unattainable elsewhere.


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