Why do Governments and Corporations become Evil?

The corporate motto of Google, Inc. is “Don’t be Evil.” While this might seem like playful banter from an amazingly successful company, it actually says something deep and meaningful about human society – namely, that organizations; be they corporations, religious groups, or governments; over time become “evil.”

The corporate motto of Google, Inc. is “Don’t be Evil.” While this might seem like playful banter from an amazingly successful company, it actually says something deep and meaningful about human society – namely, that organizations; be they corporations, religious groups, or governments; over time become “evil.”

Why is this? No corporation starts out with the intent of becoming evil, governments are not (typically) founded to repress their people. So why does it happen?

To explain this, we need to think of corporations, religious groups, and governments as something more than just “organizations.” When a group becomes large enough, it ceases to be a simple group and takes on a “persona” of its own – in effect, becoming a “person.” (Corporations are explicitly people – they are legally structured as such to protect the people who work for them from being liable for the corporation’s actions – at least, mostly.)

Now, most people are inherently “good,” more or less. So how can an organization built up from good people become evil?

When a group becomes large enough, it ceases to be the sum of the wills and desires of the people within it, and instead becomes the sum of the “wills” and “desires” built into it by the rules and regulations that organize it. In corporations, this is the by-laws and the desire of stockholders for higher profits and a return on their investment. In governments, this is laws and regulations. Even when started with the best of intentions, unless those intentions are explicitly written into the very fabric of the organization (i.e. the rules, by-laws, or whatnot), there will be no trace of those intentions in the final “product,” that is, the organization that is created over time by those rules.

Try to think of an organization you think is “evil.” Maybe it’s Microsoft, or maybe it’s Exxon, or a RJ Reynolds (the tobacco company), or even the United States Government. Now think of that company as if it were a person unto itself. Try to describe it as if it were a person, with feelings and intentions and desires. You’ll see some very startling results. The “person” you’ll find yourself describing is single-minded, with no morals, no concept of right or wrong – just a single-minded intent for profit (in the case of companies) or control (in the case of governments).

This is why they are evil. They were all founded with the best of intentions, by generally “good” people. They may even still be controlled by generally “good” people, but they have taken on a life of their own. Without explicit restraints, they will pursue their goals without concern for anyone or any thing. They are not people, after all – they are something both more and less than a person. A juggernaut, sacrificing whatever stands in their way. Even when people try to do good things, the overwhelming pressure of their “goals” (i.e. profit or control) leads them to do things that no one would expect a person in their right mind to do. Corporations destroy environments, cheat and lie to gain market share, and destroy lives. Governments try to control every aspect of their citizens’ lives, and regulate everything in sight.

Now, you might try and stop me here and say that things aren’t as bad as I’m suggesting. Corporations haven’t reduced the Earth to a smoldering wasteland, after all. However, corporations have external limits and restraints placed on them by governments – generally representing the will of the people, but not always – and these limits and restraints, if you look at them closely, are almost always in the realm of what, for lack of a better term, I will call “morality.” When it comes to governments, we (here in the US at least) are lucky that our particular system of government has checks and balances on its own power built right in to help keep it under control, and representing the will of the people, rather than its own overwhelming desire for power. Although these checks and balances will eventually fail – after all, “morality” was not written into the constitution, and without it, even the best system will fall into tyranny. (The only “outside” influence for governments is, ironically, revolution by its people or, in a lesser sense, conquest by another country.)

This is a sobering thought, but there is a grain of wisdom in it as well, one that Google has taken to heart (although I don’t know if they fully appreciate it). The only way to prevent organizations from becoming evil is to imbue them with a sense of morality from the start – be it a corporate mantra to “not be evil,” or explicit restraints in the form of constitutions, amendments, by-laws, or what have you.

Of course, it is not just the nature of organizations to become evil in and of themselves – there are always some “bad seeds” in there somewhere, people with “evil” intentions do slip between the cracks, and it is their intentions which become amplified and personified by the group. What is the saying, “those who most desire power are least qualified to possess it?” Without explicit protection against “those who most desire power,” most organizations will end up in the control of such people – those who are, by definition, the least qualified to possess it.

It will be interesting to watch events unfold in the near future for me. I predict that we are on the verge of some radical changes in our society. Government has gone from a very good thing into a very “bad” thing. I look at the actions of the United States worldwide lately, and see only an organization seeking to maintain its own power, its “status quo,” while systematically taking control away from its own people, and regulating every aspect of their life – for no other reason than “government exists to govern.” This principle, taken to its logical conclusion, leads us down a road towards a future shockingly like the future predicted in George Orwell’s 1984. Similarly, corporations will continue to behave like spoiled children, with no concern for others – sacrificing innovation, the environment, and employees – all in the name of the almighty dollar. Even with a caring and understanding CEO, a corporation cannot escape its will, because a CEO is typically beholden to a board of directors, which is in turn beholden to stockholders, who are – in a large, publicly traded company, anyway – a large group. And as we have seen, large groups, large organizations without “morality,” always end up being… evil.

Over-reacting

Terrorism is a real threat, and one that needs to be addressed by appropriate means. But allowing ourselves to be terrorized by wannabe terrorists and unrealistic plots — and worse, allowing our essential freedoms to be lost by using them as an excuse — is wrong.

Once again, let me quote a recent Bruce Schneier blog post:

The recently publicized terrorist plot to blow up John F. Kennedy International Airport, like so many of the terrorist plots over the past few years, is a study in alarmism and incompetence: on the part of the terrorists, our government and the press.

Terrorism is a real threat, and one that needs to be addressed by appropriate means. But allowing ourselves to be terrorized by wannabe terrorists and unrealistic plots — and worse, allowing our essential freedoms to be lost by using them as an excuse — is wrong.

Apparently someone was thinking about maybe, possibly blowing up some fuel tanks at JFK Airport. Never mind that they are well-protected tanks, and that blowing them up would do basically nothing (the pipelines shut off automatically in the event of fire), or that the tanks couldn’t be really “blown up” because they are enclosed and there’s no oxygen to fuel a fire. I mean, the person in question didn’t even have a map of the freakin’ airport.

You couldn’t tell that from the press reports, though. “The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is just unthinkable,” U.S. Attorney Roslynn R. Mauskopf said at a news conference, calling it “one of the most chilling plots imaginable.” Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) added, “It had the potential to be another 9/11.”

Thanks for scaring the crap out of people, guys. Real reassuring.

The only voice of reason out there seemed to be New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said: “There are lots of threats to you in the world. There’s the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can’t sit there and worry about everything. Get a life…. You have a much greater danger of being hit by lightning than being struck by a terrorist.”

And he was widely excoriated for it.

This is the world we live in. As I have said before, with this kind of attitude, the terrorists have basically already won – we’ve been terrorized and are now living in fear, which is exactly what they wanted. And if you don’t think that this is something you should be very concerned about, just consider this:

Arresting people before they’ve carried out their plans means trying to prove intent, which rapidly slips into the province of thought crime.

Big Brother is watching you.

I refuse to be terrorized, and I won’t have this country evolve into a “Big Brother” society. Will you?

More on the “Missing Children”

We are rearing our children in captivity — their habitat shrinking almost daily. In 1970 the average nine-year-old girl would have been free to wander 840 metres from her front door. By 1997 it was 280 metres. Now the limit appears to have come down to the front doorstep.

From Bruce Schneier’s blog:

We are rearing our children in captivity — their habitat shrinking almost daily.

In 1970 the average nine-year-old girl would have been free to wander 840 metres from her front door. By 1997 it was 280 metres.

Now the limit appears to have come down to the front doorstep.

[…]

The picket fence marks the limit of their play area. They wouldn’t dare venture beyond it.

“You might get kidnapped or taken by a stranger,” says Jojo.

“In the park you might get raped,” agrees Holly.

Don’t they yearn to go off to the woods, to climb trees and get muddy?

No, they tell me. The woods are scary. Climbing trees is dangerous. Muddy clothes get you in trouble.

One wonders what they think of Just William, Swallows And Amazons or The Famous Five — fictional tales of strange children from another time, an age of adventures where parents apparently allowed their offspring to be out all day and didn’t worry about a bit of mud.

There is increasing concern that today’s “cotton-wool kids” are having their development hampered.

They are likely to be risk-averse, stifled by fears which are more phobic than real.

This seems to fit well with what I observed the other day – and it makes me sad.

REAL ID Comments Close Tonight!

A national ID is wrong and is counter to the principles upon which this country was founded.

Let me let Bruce Schneier sum it up for you:

The Department of Homeland Security has published draft rules regarding REAL ID, and are requesting comments. Comments are due today, by 5:00 PM Eastern Time. Please, please, please, go to this Privacy Coalition site and submit your comments. The DHS has been making a big deal about the fact that so few people are commenting, and we need to prove them wrong.

Please people – for the love of God – send in a comment about how utterly wrong this whole idea is. Here is the letter I sent in:

Department of Homeland Security
Attn: NAC 1-12037
Washington, D.C. 20538
RE: Notice of Proposed Rulemaking DHS-2006-0030

Dear Secretary Chertoff:

Because a successful implementation of the REAL ID Act creates a de facto national identification system, I write to urge the agency to withdraw the regulations and seek repeal of the REAL ID Act. This attempt to create rules for the establishment of a national identification system is unlawful for the following reasons:

1. The law that created the Department of Homeland Security prohibited a national identification system. By trying to implement REAL ID, the Department of Homeland Security is breaking the law and violating the public trust.

2. The plan will create a massive national identification system without consideration for privacy and security safeguards. It will make it easy for identity thieves, stalkers, and corrupt officials to get access to such personal information as a home address, age, Social Security number, and a digital photo.

3. The regulations endanger the privacy of domestic violence survivors’ personal information, exposing them to stalkers in all 50 states.

Furthermore, it should be obvious that the intended purpose of the REAL ID Act, to “improve the security and lessen the vulnerability of federal buildings, nuclear facilities, and aircraft to terrorist attack,” cannot be realized through this legislation. Knowledge of IDENTITY does not give us knowledge of INTENT.

Respectfully submitted,

Keith M. Survell

Take action. Don’t sit on this. Make your voice heard – in this case, it can be! Don’t let the United States of America become a police state. A national ID is wrong and is counter to the principles upon which this country was founded. This act must be stopped!

“The Drumhead”

“The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on we’re all damaged.”

Tonight I was watching a very good episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and as I watched it I realized just how relevant it was. Allow me to sum it up with some quotes:

“With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably. Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie as wisdom and warning… The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on we’re all damaged.”

-Captain Picard

“Sir, the Federation does have enemies! We must seek them out!”

“Oh, yes. That’s how it starts! But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think.”

-Worf and Captain Picard

“We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches, it’s all ancient history. Then! Before you can blink an eye, suddenly it threatens to start all over again.”

-Captain Picard

“villains who twirl their mustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well-camouflaged.”

“[…] she, or someone like her will always be with us – waiting for the right climate in which to flourish. Spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mr. Worf: That is the price we have to continually pay.”

-Captain Picard

Read those quotes again in the context of today’s political climate and I think you’ll agree – we do think we’ve come so far, but the barbaric practices of our past are often much closer than any of us would like to think.