Bloomberg View From the column's comment section: "If companies think that no one is paying attention, you haven't begun to see the amount of intrusiveness that's possible." Megan, do you think this is true?
Megan McArdle: Companies do think that no one is paying attention to them, and I think they're largely right about this. And that's something worth noting about privacy activists, and other sorts of anti-corporate activists, even when I disagree with them: they are one of the reasons that companies don't go loonie and do a bunch of horrible things.
Now, I'm not arguing that companies never do horrible things. But really, when you think of all the ways that companies could lie and cheat and abuse their customers, they're actually remarkably honest. That's not an argument against regulation, or whatever, it's just an observation that they could be much worse. It's remarkably true of lots of stuff in American life, actually; for example, tax evasion is actually pretty easy to get away with, but most people don't try.
There are lots of reasons that companies don't do every bad thing they could do. For one, there are people in these companies, and people do not, on balance, like to do horrible things to other people. Also, many horrible things risk a backlash from your customers, which would cost more than any profit you'd make off said horribleness. One factor that keeps companies afraid of a backlash is the activists who will publicize any dodgy activity that comes to light. So these groups are really useful, even vital, to having a good capitalist society.
But that doesn't mean that we should therefore think "companies bad, activist groups good". Activist groups, which are also made up of people, can be venal, self-interested, stupid, or simply mistaken, just like companies. And they almost always view their personal preferences and values as synonymous with the public good, even though much of the public does not share these preferences or values. So we should be glad that activist groups are around to keep companies honest--but we should also be skeptical of the activists too.
For instance, take Shell Oil. We all know that they don't really want to do bad stuff because they're rilly nice people and their customers would stop buying gasoline if they did.
HOUSTON – Sierra Club and Environment Texas filed a lawsuit today in federal district court against Shell Oil Company and several affiliates. The suit – the first case in Texas in which citizen groups are suing to stop illegal air emissions arising from so-called “upset” events – claims that Shell has repeatedly violated the Clean Air Act at its Deer Park, Texas, oil refinery and chemical plant, resulting in the release of millions of pounds of excess air pollutants over the past five years, including toxic chemicals such as benzene and 1,3-butadiene.
Shell’s Deer Park facility is a 1,500-acre complex located on the Houston Ship Channel in Harris County, about 20 miles east of downtown Houston. It is the nation’s eighth-largest oil refinery and one of the world’s largest producers of petrochemicals. The facility is also the second largest source of air pollution in Harris County, which ranks among the worst in the nation in several measures of air quality.
“I live and work downwind from Shell, in Channelview. My family and my employees simply can’t afford to breathe in any more air pollution,” said Sierra Club member and small business owner Karla Land. “We have laws to protect air quality for a reason. Shell is breaking those laws and they need to be made to stop.”
“On average of more than once a week for at least the past five years, Shell has reported that it violated its own permit limits by spewing a wide range of harmful pollutants into the air around the Deer Park plant,” said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas. “Because the state of Texas and the U.S. EPA have both failed to put a stop to these blatant violations, ordinary citizens are stepping up to enforce the law themselves.”
Make sure you are skeptical of activists because they "can be venal, self-interested, stupid, or simply mistaken, just like companies."