The BP oil spill is just the latest example of questionable corporate action that's prompted calls for stronger government regulation. Yet the more profound reform would come from absorbing the lessons of a game with no referees.
But that's like seeing a basketball player throw a punch and demanding more vigilant referees. We shouldn't absolve athletes of responsibility, encouraging them to push the boundaries of acceptable conduct until they get caught.
Likewise, we shouldn't depend on government to make business act in the best interests of society. We need to cultivate in corporate executives respect for not just the letter but the spirit of the law.
The harm those companies caused is anything but a game. But let's inject a bit of levity into an otherwise dire set of circumstances and look to one game for guidance: ultimate frisbee. The fast-growing sport (with some 700 college teams in the US alone) is like soccer with aerial passing but without referees. Players are expected to call their own fouls – and do. Even at collegiate and world championships, players hand the Frisbee to the other team if they've had unnecessary contact with an opposing player or held the disc for longer than the allowed 10 seconds – whether or not someone else calls them on it.
This ethos is known as the "spirit of the game." I've played ultimate throughout the US, Europe, and Asia, and can confirm that the spirit of the game reigns everywhere. Business would do well to learn from it.
Some have argued that the sole responsibility of business is to maximize profits, the more enlightened among them conceding that they should do so within the bounds of applicable law.
But this, too, is misguided. From boycotts of Nike over their Asian sweatshops 20 years ago to community blockades of oil and mining installations from Ecuador to Zambia today, it's clear that companies can't just sit back and watch the cash flow in once they've obtained their legal license to operate.