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An analytical look at corporations: are they heroes or villains?

Depending on your point of view, corporations are either nefarious octopi, trolling the world for squeezable consumers, or agents of progress wholly responsible for lifting mankind from the level of hunter-gatherer.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in betwee. Are corporations good or bad for society? What role have they played in developing our way of life? As a whole, how moralm are they?

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"Corporations, especially large or transnational business corporations, are frequently targets of attack by social critics and religious ethicists," writes Michael Novak, co-editor of a new American Enterprise Institute report that discusses these difficult questions. "We are particularly interested, therefore , in achieving a dispassionate understanding of the facts about corporations."

When measured against their competition -- state-run, centralized economies -- the corporate-centered free market seems a clear winner in terms of sheer output.

"If we mentally look around the world, we cannot fail to be struck by the extent to which the economic success stories are to be found in nations with liberal, market-organized economic systems," writes Paul McCracken, former chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors and a report contributor.

But shelves glittering with consumer goods aren't the only measure of importance.

Economists, businessmen, and politicians have long grappled with the idea that corporations are tinged with greed, founded on love of money, and thus not quite admirable.

"The more important charge of the intellectual consensus is that capitalism is morally vacant," writes George Gilder in his new book "Wealth and Poverty."

Gilder, guru of entrepreneurs and David Stockman, stumbles some on this question himself. Contributers to the American Enterprise Institute report, however, make these points:

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* The corporate-based economy "has an essential morality in its basic insistence that performance be the route to success -- not membership in The Party or having been born into the right family or the right race," writes McCracken.

* "The strongest case for capitalism is the argument from freedom," writes Bernard Murchland, professor of philosophy at Ohio Wesleyan. Corporations, in his view, give individuals freedom to pick what they do, or what they buy, in a way other systems can't.

* "Poverty is the plight of all primitive or traditional peoples; not until the rise of industrial capitalism did any society have the capability to eliminate stark poverty," writes Reginald Jones, former chairman of the board of General Electric. Corporations increase the economic pie; without them we would just be shuffling the pieces around.

* Corporations might be the modern world's most cohesive form of community. A company "allows very different kinds of people to work in harmony for common goals, to form friendships, make choices, and deploy their talents; it generates an esprit de corps and common loyalties and it distributes power -- in brief, it affords an opportunity to practice a significant range of democratic virtues," says Bernard Murchland.

* Corporations provide an unmatched stage for inventiveness, ingenuity, and innovation. Children, wheeled through the supermarket, delight at the sheer dynamics of the endless display of goods. "I do not think enough work has been done on the aesthetics of technology and capitalism, that is to say, on its fictive dimension, the sheer play of surface forms," writes Murchland.

No one denies that corporations can be clumsy cultural institutions, blundering through the world and causing great damage when their weight gets swung in the wrong direction; or that they often have a rapacious attitude toward profit.

"A world in which it is assumed that we will all try selflessly to serve the wants of others might somehow be more attractive to contemplate," concludes McCracken, "but things will work out better if we have a system that serves the general welfare even assuming that something less than such exalted altruism motivates people."

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