Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is a bad movie that took on cult status over the years (for some inexplicable reason). The plot is simple: Tomatoes on which government scientists are experimenting take on a life of their own and begin causing mayhem in their effort to take over the country. A similar plot is actually playing itself out in the real world today.

The new plot today might be called the “Attack of the Killer Corporations.” As money from corporations flows into political campaigns, retirees find their pensions wiped out by corporate management, and reports come out showing the gap widening between corporate executives’ pay and that of their regular employees, have you noticed the increasing attack on corporations as the destroyers of America? They are often portrayed in the media as greedy, bad, oppressive, and purveyors of other not so nice things.

But why the attack on corporations, as if they have some life of their own like killer tomatoes? A corporation is a legal structure subject to certain rules and regulations. If you ask me, the attack on corporations seems a bit like the attack on guns. Guns don’t kill people; they are the instruments by which people kill people. And the same is true of corporations. The problem behind “evil” corporations is the evil people who operate them.

As I think about this attack on these entities that we, the people, decided to give life to through our elected representatives, I realize that the attack reflects a certain worldview, that grid through which we evaluate and make sense of our world.

Everyone has a worldview whether they can articulate it or not. And one thing that a worldview has to explain is why things go wrong in our world. “What’s wrong with the world?” is one of the great philosophical questions that we don’t think too much about in everyday life. But everyday people like you and me have an answer to that question, and we subconsciously use it all the time.

It seems to me that the current attack on corporations is just a modern strain of the worldview articulated by the Enlightenment philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau is famous for saying, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” In other words, something’s wrong with things the way they are; they’re not supposed to be this way. According to Rousseau, the problem is civilization and the institutions that had arisen. Civilization and institutions had corrupted things and enslaved man.

The fallacy, of course, is that we are the civilization. Civilization is just a reflection of us. In criticizing civilization, we’re criticizing ourselves. And the same fallacy lies behind the attack on corporations. Corporations don’t run themselves. People do.

To his credit, Rousseau called for the overthrow of those “corrupt” institutions and, in time, the French Revolution was born. But today, I don’t really see those who criticize corporations seriously calling for the repeal of the laws authorizing corporations and a return to sole proprietorships and partnerships. Instead we just want more and more government regulation of them.

Wouldn’t a better answer be for a few statesmen to rise up and remind us that maybe we could use a bit more virtuous culture, one in which we are more mindful of the fact that justice will come to wrongdoers, if not in this world, then in the next? That’s not to say that some regulations are not needed or that we can ever be free of all regulations, but the greed, selfishness, live-for-the-moment, it’s-not-cheating-if-you’re-not-caught, there’s-no-ultimate-accountability culture has certainly ushered in more regulations than were ever previously necessary for the rise of the economic prosperity we’ve enjoyed in the past.

We tend to want to find a cause for why things go badly. But the thought of blaming bad things on bad people cuts across our current belief that we’re inherently good people and so it must be something outside ourselves that makes us do bad things.

In this I’m reminded of what G.K. Chesterton wrote to a newspaper when asked, along with other prominent figures, what the problem in the world was. He wrote simply: I am.