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Right, We Almost Forgot: Corporations Also Kill People

David Callahan

There is no more basic form of liberty than the right to be alive and unharmed. 

Forty years ago, when Ralph Nader was at the height of his fame, a major critique of corporations was they knowingly put their bottom line above the health and safety of the American people. Exposés of car safety, cigarettes, air pollution, lead paint, and prescription drugs revealed how corporate executives knew that their products or behavior caused harm and death, but went ahead anyway to bolster profits.

Over time, though, this critique of corporate malfeasance fell away and recent years have been dominated by an economic and political analysis of corporate power, focusing on financial irresponsibility, excessive CEO pay, worker exploitation, and corrupting campaign donations. 

But two cases in the news stand as a reminder of how corporations still cause harm and death in the name of profits. 

The first is the GM episode that played out dramatically in Congress yesterday, as the company's CEO testified in an inquiry about faulty ignition switches that led to the deaths of 13 people. In effect, she blamed the incident on a "culture of cost" that prioritized financial savings over consumer safety. Instead of recalling the cars to replace the faulty switches -- a relatively quick and inexpensive fix -- GM chose to save the money and people died.

That really does sound like a Ralph Nader horror story, and it's worth recalling that the infamous Corvair -- the car that was "unsafe at any speed" -- was made by GM. Detroit is infinitely more conscious of safety today than it was four decades ago, but the pressures to bolster profits are intense at every publicly held company, and particularly automakers. The GM case is a reminder of how those pressures can lead to deadly behavior.

The other shameful story in the news right now is the criminal indictment of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company that was just charged with 12 felony counts in a 2010 natural gas explosion in California:

Federal prosecutors allege that PG&E knowingly relied on erroneous and incomplete information when assessing the safety of the pipeline that eventually ruptured, sparked a fireball and leveled 38 homes in San Bruno. Nearly four years later, the neighborhood where eight were killed and dozens injured is still recovering. . . . The indictment accuses the company of failing to act on threats in its pipeline system even after the problems were identified by its own inspectors.

So, basically, a similar story to the GM case: Company executives knew that there was a risk to safety and chose to take no action, leading to death and harm. 

Neither of these cases is especially surprising, and stuff likes this surfaces regularly. For example, we've written a few times in this space about the West Virginia mine disaster that killed 29 miners in 2010. In the aftermath of those deaths, federal prosecutors secured prison time for some of those responsible, including a former executive at Massey Energy who was described as "the highest-ranking mine official ever convicted of conspiracy to impede MSHA [the Mine Safety and Health Administration] or conspiracy to violate mine health and safety standards." 

All of these cases are a reminder of why effective government regulation of industry is so important. But, as I have argued here before, they also point to the very real way that corporations can threaten individual liberty. After all, there is no more basic form of liberty than the right to be alive and unharmed. 

You'd think that the valiant defenders of liberty at places like the Cato Institute would be at least a tad concerned about the threat to liberty by unchecked corporate power. But, of course, they aren't -- and even steer clear of condemning the milder threats to liberty from corporations that routinely violate our privacy. Therein lies a major hypocrisy in libertarian ideology.