Search

The Dangerous Beast We Created

By Matt Miller


In her 1818 novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley introduced the world to Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s Monster. For two centuries, the monster has been misunderstood and misinterpreted in countless ways. For example, the original creature was rather articulate and sensitive. He was helpful and gentle. This personification is a far cry from the grunting oaf that many pop culture interpretations have offered up since then. While he did end up an angry multiple-murderer with a deep disdain for humanity, this version of the creature was the product of a specific literary arc.


In giving us this being and stripping it of its inherent goodness, I submit that Shelley unwittingly laid out a course for the modern American Economy. From its creation to tragic outcome, we have constructed, given life to, and developed a perfect sociopath. In our story, the part of Dr. Victor Frankenstein is played by Chicago economist Milton Friedman.


In a 1970 essay for the New York Times titled “A Friedman Doctrine: The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits,” he argued that a company has no responsibility to the public or society. Friedman holds that a firm’s sole responsibility is to maximize profits for its shareholders. For obvious reasons, this was a wonderfully popular theory with the greedy and powerful. Suddenly their singular focus on greed wasn’t only acceptable, but a respected economist had publicly declared that it was the only responsible thing for them to do! Their complete disregard for their employees’ well-being, communities, or society was now a trait to be celebrated. It wasn’t until decades later that influential investor Jeremy Grantham would exclaim, “That’s a workable definition of sociopath, for God’s sake!


Grantham makes a valid point. If an individual openly behaved in a way that completely lacked conscience but singularly towards their own selfish interests, we may indeed label them a sociopath. After all, the literal definition isn’t too far from his working definition.


so·ci·o·path

/ˈsōsēōˌpaTH/


  1. A person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.


While Grantham may have established the extreme antisocial attitudes and lack of conscience required to meet the definition of a sociopath, he did miss one essential prerequisite. By definition, a sociopath has to be “a person.”


Much like Frankenstein’s Monster. Corporations are not living, breathing human beings but are, rather, made up of such people or attitudes. To become a bonafide sociopath, a corporation would need to be brought to life. It wouldn’t take a simple flash of lightning or Prometheus fire to do this job. Our creature merely requires over a thousand years and teams of attorneys to come to achieve personhood.


Some of the earliest evidence of the concept of “corporate personhood” can be found at around 800 BC in India, where they granted legal personhood to guilds that had been deemed to serve in the public interest. In 1880s America, attorney John Norton Pomeroy successfully argued that “corporations could not be separated from the natural persons who compose them.” More recently, and perhaps most importantly, is the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which undid over a century of legal precedent and gave corporations full rights to spend money as they wish in candidate elections — federal, state, and local. The legal cover for this decision was that corporations, as people, enjoyed the protection of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. If one needed evidence that this was the definitive moment that gave life to the monster, they needed only wait until the following year. It was then that former Massachusetts Governor and Private Equity CEO Mitt Romney simply declared it in front of a crowd at the Iowa State Fair. He matter-of-factly and unapologetically explained, “corporations are people, my friend,” on his way to an unsuccessful presidential run.


Like the original Victor Frankenstein, we now find ourselves face-to-face with the dangerous beast we created. Ours even has a few distinct advantages over the original. It has limitless resources and no expectation of responsibility to humanity. It is constructed from parts of countless people, so no individual needs to suffer the burden of conscience. Rather than being shunned by society, our beast is accepted, even admired, and sometimes celebrated. It is not alone, but rather a legion of creatures spread around the globe. To return to the words of Jeremy Grantham, “they’re going to do nothing that is altruistic, nothing that is ultra long-term, nothing that has returns to the social well being… They’re not paid to do that.”


Dr. Frankenstein eventually led an expedition into the Arctic to destroy the beast that he had unleashed on the world. It is not my place to say what we must do or sacrifice to protect society from our perfect sociopath. The two most obvious paths forward seem to be to take up our pitchforks and torches or start the work required to help it return it to its idealistic roots.


Photo collage images provided by Shari Sirotnak and NeONBRAND on Unsplash

65 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All