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Time to Rescue the Corporate Lords of the Flies From Themselves

02/03/2015 17:03 GMT | Updated 02/05/2015 10:59 BST

Those corporate scandals just keep coming. The torrent won't stop. Yesterday a tech company, today a bank, tomorrow a mining corporation, and the following day an oil firm. Even corporations are acknowledging that it's all gone badly wrong. They talk of having let people down, even of moral failure. They say that they agree that things need to change. At a meeting organised by the World Economic Forum, and at another organised by the Skoll World Forum on Social Entepreneurship, I heard speaker after speaker talk about the need to bring values back into corporations. But when I raised the issue of regulation, a sudden reticence appeared. In the same way, at a private discussion at a major multinational asking them to accept common minimum standards, the directors replied that they didn't need standards, they "bring their values to work" instead. In London, Lusaka and Lahore I hear the same plea - "values, not rules". But without the firm enforcement of clear fair rules, we will not be able to secure the power shift necessary to rescue people and planet from the whims of the 1%; indeed, we will not be able to rescue the 1% from themselves.

The pressure to maximise profit, combined with the lack of meaningful restraints on how profit is maximised, will, sadly, keep trumping corporate bosses recognition of the need to do the right thing. As Winston Churchill noted over a century ago, without restrictions on what businesses can do, "bad employers will be undercut by worse employers". Many corporate leaders will, in their better moments, agree that "the value of our business is not delineated by the market, but is dependent on the values with which we do business." That was HSBC. They will agree that they need to be "performance driven, through the lens of humanity". That was Starbucks. But for all their promises of good behaviour, they just cannot help themselves. An entry in the diary of a British trader in 1830s China reads: "So busy selling opium that I couldn't read the bible today." Future historians will no doubt describe diaries of our current age that read: "So busy organising tax avoidance that I couldn't prepare my TED Talk on Corporate Social Responsibility."

When corporate leaders justify socially destructive behaviour by saying that they are following the law, they are of course masking that they spend a fortune to influence those laws. But they nevertheless reveal an important truth. They only alternative to being ruled by the whims of powerful men is to be ruled by laws. Just as we would never organise road transport by saying "drive as you like but please by nice", we cannot manage the market place with a plea to conscience alone. As even the IMF now acknowledges, the root of present day hyper-inequality and out-of-control finance is relentless market deregulation. The balance of power has shifted to such an extent that corporations have effective impunity; and governments, whose job is to protect citizens and monitor corporations, have instead ended up protecting corporations and monitoring citizens. We need to put the market at the service of humanity - not the other way around.

It has become fashionable among politicians to talk about how entitlements have led to a culture of irresponsibility amongst some sections of the very poor. But what is evident is that the group that this entitlement analysis most meaningfully applies to is some of the very rich. Perhaps we shouldn't be angry at the corporate titans; we should feel sorry for them. They need tough love. They need the firm enforcement of fair rules - fair rules on transparency, taxes, wages, environmental protection and workers' rights - to ensure that they really can do the right thing. These can't be a choice any more.

The lack of any meaningful restraining power over the 1% is not just bad for the rest of us - it is in the end even bad for them. On deeper inspection, it seems corporate titans may be little more than oversized Lords of the Flies, who need to be rescued from themselves. When we talk about shifting power away from them, we really are doing it for their own good.