Tobacco Companies Are Good For You

I started reading Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco last night. It’s the story of how one bad-apple CEO almost single-handedly liquidated a 150-year-old company. I didn’t think stuff like leveraged buyouts and C-suite coups could be the stuff of thrillers, but I was up til 2 am last night devouring it.

Anyway, even the background reading of this case is interesting. Take RJR Tobacco, the inventor of Camels cigarettes and one of the south’s biggest and most successful companies:

Reynolds took special care of its workers. The company loaned employees up to two-thirds of the value of their property, operated lunchrooms at cost, and always had ice water on hand in the steamy tobacco factories. It provided day care for the children of women workers–one for the whites, of course, and one ofor the blacks. Reynolds even ran a supervised rooming house for country girls who came to Winston-Salem to work, and provided housing for another 180 families at cost.

All this was in the first half of the 1900s, when things like job security, benefits and even an 8-hour day were considered unspeakable luxuries. The book reports that RJ Reynolds banned child labour decades before it was ever a national law.

But still, this is fundamentally a company that was selling cancerous, addictive, unfiltered products to American consumers at a vast profit margin. How do assess the morality of an institution like this?

In a way, the RJ Reynolds of the early 1900s is something like the opposite of a lot of companies today. RJR sold a harmful product, but took great stewardship of its workers and the community it was operating in–at least by the standards of the time.

A company like Wal-Mart, on the other hand, treats its employees with Dickensian exploitation, yet sells products at prices that allow poor people (in many cases its own workers) to access a higher quality of life than they would have without it. Oil companies produce a product which–like it or not–is essential for our lifestyles, but often significantly degrade the communities and even countries where they operate. How do we weigh all of these things against each other?

Like I said last time I agonized about this exact same issue, I have no tools for reconciling this. I don’t know how to morally differentiate between what a company is and what it does. If a corporation want to be treated like a person, though, a good start would be acting like one.

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Filed under America, Books

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