There are those who believe that corporations have but one purpose—to maximize profits. There are those who believe that business must be a force for good, using free-market principles primarily to serve people and the planet—also known as social enterprise. And then there are those who seek to strike a balance, realizing profits while doing as much good as possible—also known as Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR. The CSR camp has grown exponentially over the past few decades as rising income inequality and other inequities have put pressure on big business to address rather than create or exacerbate these problems.
The popularity of CSR is easy to understand: the notion that one can make money and still contribute to a healthy economy and environment is comforting. But to think that big business and their executives, who have so often contributed to grave injustices, can suddenly turn around and solve them is not only naive, but dangerous. The reason is this: if the solution to climate change, mass incarceration, gun violence, etc. depends on the rich and powerful choosing to strike a balance between their self-interest and the well-being of others, then we are putting our fate in the hands of a small group of elites. Should the future of humanity turn on the whims of several hundred, or perhaps several thousand, plutocrats and the firms they lead?
To see the problem more clearly, let’s look at a recent example. On September 3rd, in response to a spate of mass shootings, including, most importantly, inside its own stores, Walmart announced that it “would stop selling ammunition that can be used” in assault rifles and “call on Congress to increase background checks and consider a new assault rifle ban.” This would appear to be the epitome of CSR—corporate America taking a stand on a weighty issue and considering more than its bottom-line. But it took dozens of bullet-riddled corpses at a Walmart shopping center to do what they could have and should have done decades ago: use their political and commercial leverage to stop enabling an epidemic of slaughter and to call for common-sense gun reform. Whether the policy about-face is due to CSR or pure self-interest, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died while advocates waited for this kind of action.
My aim is not to single out Walmart—of course it is better that they took this stand than not. But we must recognize that Walmart’s moral change of heart, like that of many companies in similar circumstances, came about because the problem it had refused to address had quite literally and bloodily landed on its doorstep. One could even argue that it had finally become more profitable to do the right thing, which is even more dangerous—if ethical corporate behavior only applies to profitable actions, we are doomed to suffer any injustice whose resolution does not happen to benefit the 1%.
Is this how it’s going to be? Is this the best we can do? Are we to wait until the oceans have risen by ten feet and the Amazon rainforest has disappeared before big business (Exxon, Procter & Gamble)  stops obstructing urgent action on the climate?  Until 100 immigrants die in ICE detention, denied even flu vaccines,  before big business (Amazon, Palantir, Microsoft)[5, 6] stops profiting off ICE contracts and calls for an end to the human rights violations? The list goes on.
Humanity can only prosper when it has a say in its own future; that’s the premise and the promise of democracy. The premise and promise of CSR is that government, including democratically elected governments that represent the people, should stay out of the way because the “free-market system is the best means of generating good jobs, a strong and sustainable economy, innovation, a healthy environment and economic opportunity for all.” But these lofty goals are too important to depend on the goodwill of the powerful. In truth, the only way to achieve a prosperous and just world is for the civil and social sectors—governments and nonprofits—to establish rules and guidelines that make Corporate Social Responsibility unnecessary. Why should a business, any business, ever be allowed to pollute, to underpay workers, to sell weapons of war, to strip the Earth of its resources? It is only because this immorality is possible—that is, legal, excused, or both—that the very concept of CSR has emerged and gained currency.
I, for one, do not believe that the very future of humankind and the planet should depend on voluntary actions. So long as we rely on CSR, we will continue to find ourselves balanced on a razor blade of disaster, never sure if the catastrophe that finally spurs action will come too late for the action to even matter anymore. If big business really wants to foster a “strong and sustainable economy,” they should use their immense power to push Congress to raise their taxes (in 2018, 60 Fortune 500 companies paid no federal income tax whatsoever), raise the minimum wage, restore the power of unions, implement a carbon tax, and eliminate the influence of the wealthy (including themselves) on the political process. Absent that, all the proponents of Corporate Social Responsibility are saying is “Don’t worry. The uber-wealthy and powerful feel your pain. They know how to make it better. And they’ll get to it when they can and if, in their wisdom and munificence, they happen to feel like it.”
 Corkery, Michael. September 3, 2019. Walmart to Limit Ammunition Sales and Discourage ‘Open Carry of Guns in Stores. The New York Time. <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/03/business/walmart-guns-ammunition-sales.html>
 Eckhouse, Brian. September 15, 2019. Biggest Companies ‘Obstructing’ Climate Policy, Report Finds. Bloomberg. <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-15/biggest-companies-obstructing-climate-policy-report-finds>
 McCarthy, Niall. March 25, 2019. Oil And Gas Giants Spend Millions Lobbying To Block Climate Change Policies. Forbes. <https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2019/03/25/oil-and-gas-giants-spend-millions-lobbying-to-block-climate-change-policies-infographic/#73559e357c4f>
 Lee, Bruce. No Flu Vaccines For Detained Migrant Families? Why This Is Wrong. August 22, 2019. Forbes. <https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2019/08/22/no-flu-vaccines-for-detained-migrant-families-why-this-is-stupid/#236f09636774>
 Hao, Karen. Amazon is the invisible backbone of ICE’s immigration crackdown. October 22, 2018. MIT Technology Review. <https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612335/amazon-is-the-invisible-backbone-behind-ices-immigration-crackdown/>
Darby, Luke. July 19, 2019. Private Companies Are Cashing in on ICE’s Detention Centers. GQ. <https://www.gq.com/story/private-profit-detention-centers>
 Our Commitment. The Business Roundtable. <https://opportunity.businessroundtable.org/ourcommitment/>
 April 11, 2019. 60 Fortune 500 Companies Avoided All Federal Income Tax in 2018 Under New Tax Law. Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. <https://itep.org/60-fortune-500-companies-avoided-all-federal-income-tax-in-2018-under-new-tax-law/>