Spring 2004 - Volume 7 Number 2
Wealth by Stealth: Corporate Crime, Corporate Law and the Perversion of Democracy.
Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002.
Harry Glasbeek has impeccable credentials. He is a graduate of both the University of Melbourne and the University of Chicago Law Schools. He is Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar at York University in Toronto. He is a corporate lawyer. Wealth by Stealth is his tenth book.
He also stands as an exemplar of the view that being a member of the putative elite does not remove a concern for ethics; it merely enhances the capacity to articulate ethical concerns.
Ethics has become an important topic. Bad behaviour has always been with us, but corporate scandals (both public and private) have resulted in an unprecedented level of public skepticism of authority. One illustration is the Lou Dobbs television program on CNN which closes its business report each night with an accounting of the number of days (many) since the Enron debacle and the number of corporate leaders (few) who have been incarcerated for their wrong-doing.
Ethicists are also crucial in the discussion of issues that have emerged because of technological advances in a variety of fields. Information technology produces dilemmas regarding privacy. Reproductive technology produces quandaries in health care. Donald Rumsfeld can barely contain his fury when he discovers that digital cameras can be used to advertise torture in Iraqi prisons. The list is quickly growing.
Popular interest that is focussed on issues of economic power and public accountability is, however, of overarching importance. In any society in which wealth is unequally distributed, the stability of that society depends in large measure upon the efficacy of the distribution. Where it becomes transparent that inequality is manifestly inequitable, the loyalty of the population to existing social arrangements can easily be undermined. At least, there will be ubiquitous resentment and distrust; at most, there will be dramatic action in the interest of structural change. It is, therefore, plainly in the interest of the powerful to promote the perception that their advantages are honourable, well-deserved and fair. To the extent that it becomes popularly known that their privilege is the product of corruption, social order will be at risk. One way to promote legitimacy is, of course, to behave honestly and responsibly.
Harry Glasbeek's book, Wealth by Stealth, explores some of the evident problems within corporate capitalism. Typical examples of corporate malfeasance and political abuse are set out in clear and uncomplicated language. Glasbeek is one of those rare lawyer-scholars who can speak plainly but not patronizingly to a lay audience. The importance of this book to students of business and government (and to anyone seeking to become a competent citizen) is that it goes well beyond the sort of exposé that is easily found in the daily news. He explains how corporate behaviour and, indeed, the legal fiction of the corporate entity permit the pursuit of profit in a nether world where normal duties are denied and normal rights are expanded to the virtual exclusion of fiduciary responsibilities other than to shareholders.
Not for nothing did Adam Smith, father of free market economics, vilify the corporation as a perversion of free enterprise.
It is one thing to catch corporate thieves with their hands in the till, or public servants being bribed to perform favours for the rich and infamous. These obvious misdeeds, when detected, can lead to the pursuit of justice through the civil and criminal courts. It is another matter to reveal how the law itself protects corporate entities from rules and regulations that bind ordinary citizens. Since it is the legal system and the unique place of the corporate structure within it that permit private firms not merely to disregard social norms governing the acquisition of wealth but also to subvert democratic practices, Glasbeek is well-placed to offer incisive, critical commentary. He knows intimately what others merely suspect.
There appears to be a public taste for economic reform. In Canada, Prime Minister Paul Martin has made much of a "democratic deficit." If anything useful is to be done in either field, a worthwhile preliminary exercise would be to read Glasbeek's resolute and insightful book. It speaks to problems in corporate and political governance and shows that it is impossible to change one without changing the other.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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