“Corporations are evil” and we know this because they are always doing malicious things that are only later exposed. This often involves exploiting the complexity of transactions and the inability or unwillingness of consumers to wade through the thicket by surreptitiously ripping people off.  For example, unauthorized charges inserted into phone bills, in a practice known as “cramming”, cost Americans $2 billion dollars a year, according to this article.

When something like this is discovered, the automatic reaction is to assume that the malice was intentional. They were sticking those charges in there to squeeze money out of consumers. And its basic economics that if they can secretly insert charges and make money they will. On the other hand, such a theory would appear to require you to accept they hypothesis that “corporations are evil” or at least they are cold-hearted profit maximizers.

But you can believe that corporations are not intentionally malicious and still assume that whenever there is a cold-hearted way to steal money they will do it.    Because many malicious practices are not actively designed, rather they creep in and they are passively allowed to persist.

For example, those charges could have been legitimate under an outdated policy and when the policy was changed they forgot to remove them. Or some bumbling technician could have accidentally inserted them. Modern transactions are so complicated that random “mutations” are going to appear without any malicious intent and indeed without anyone noticing. This is a far more likely explanation than someone purposefully sticking them in there, especially if you doubt that “corporations are evil.”

Indeed, to have a conscious policy of ripping off unsuspecting customers requires instructing somebody to do that, and leaving a paper trail. Even a truly evil corporation understands that this is the wrong way to do it. The right way to do it is to structure the organization in a way that facilitates malice creep.

You don’t have to instruct anybody to allow mutant ripoffs to appear. They appear on their own, no paper trail required. All you need to do is to give weak incentives to the officers you have charged with making sure that you are not ripping anybody off.  Nobody in your organization will have any knowledge of all the ways you are cheating your clients, not even you. By design.

There is an art to the design of an organization that cultivates malice creep. Because at the same time you have to stop “virtue creep” in its tracks. You don’t want unintended credits to randomly get inserted into the phone bill. What you need is a one-sided monitoring program. You wait around for lots of mutations to appear, you know that some are virtuous and some are malicious. Now getting rid of the virtuous ones and keep the malicious ones is easily done, just announce that its time to do some “cost-cutting.” Form an ad hoc task force to go through and find ways to restructure billing in ways that save the company money. They’ll just look at the credits and ignore the charges.

In terms of the long-run bottom line, Darwinism and Lamarckism are almost indistinguishable, but Occam’s razor favors Darwin.  I would argue by the same principles that most of the malicious practices of organizations emerge by cultivated accident rather than by design.

 

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