To pave the way for such a change, we must challenge the myth that making profits and protecting the public interest are mutually exclusive goals. The same was once said about profits and product quality, before Japanese manufacturers taught us otherwise. If we force companies to respect the public interest while they make money, business people will figure out how to do both.

The specific change I suggest is simple: add 26 words to corporate law and thus create what I call the “Code for Corporate Citizenship.” In Maine, this would mean amending section 716 to add the following clause. Directors and officers would still have a duty to make money for shareholders, ...

but not at the expense of the environment, human rights,

the public safety, the communities in which the

corporation operates or the dignity of its employees.”

This simple amendment would effect a dramatic change in the underlying mechanism that drives corporate malfeasance. It would make individuals responsible for the damage companies cause to the public interest, and would be enforced much the same way as securities laws are now. Negligent failure to abide by the code would result in the corporation, its directors, and its officers being liable for the full amount of the damage they cause. In addition to civil liability, the attorney general would have the right to criminally prosecute intentional acts. Injunctive relief-which stops specific behaviors while the legal process proceeds-would also be available.

Compliance would be in the self-interest of both individuals and the company. No one wants to see personal assets subject to a lawsuit. Such a prospect would surely temper corporate managers’ willingness to make money at the expense of the public interest. Similarly, investors tend to shy away from companies with contingent liabilities, so companies that severely or repeatedly violate the Code for Corporate Citizenship might see their stock price fall or their access to capital dry up.

Many would say such a code could never be enacted. But they’re mistaken. I take heart from a 2000 Business Week/Harris Poll that asked Americans which of the following two propositions they support more strongly:

Corporations should have only one purpose—to make the most profit or their shareholders—and pursuit of that goal will be best for America in the long run.—or—Corporations should have more than one purpose. They also owe something to their workers and the communities in which they operate, and they should sometimes sacrifice some profit for the sake of making things better for their workers and communities.

An overwhelming 95 percent of Americans chose the second proposition. Clearly, this finding tells us that our fate is not sealed. When 95 percent of the public supports a proposition, enacting that proposition into law should not be impossible.

If business people resist the notion of legal change, we can remind them that corporations exist only because laws allow them to exist. Without these laws, owners would be fully responsible for debts incurred and damages caused by their businesses. Because the public creates the law, corporations owe their existence as much to the public as they do to shareholders. They should have obligations to both. It simply makes no sense that society’s most powerful citizens have no concern for the public good.

It also makes no sense to endlessly chase after individual instances of corporate wrongdoing, when that wrongdoing is a natural result of the system design. Corporations abuse the public interest because the law tells them their only legal duty is to maximize profits for shareholders. Until we change the law of corporate governance, the problem of corporate abuse can never fully be solved.

Robert Hinkley

([email protected]) lives in Brooklin, Maine.