BP and criminal defense
I was initially sympathetic to Yglesias’ post on lobbying for BP that’s been getting some play. His argument in brief goes as follows:
- Even heartless global corporations like BP should have the legal right to hire people to lobby for them in Washington
- Those lobbyists should be condemned to be shamed by others and should feel a deep sense of shame at what you’ve done. In other words, the social costs to lobbying for a bad cause should be higher
This makes a good deal of sense; there should of course be some kind of moral compass guiding individual actions, even when there’s a big payday involved.
There’s an alternative model to think about, however. It’s generally thought to be for the good that even those accused of the worst crimes deserve energetic defense in the legal system; conceivably, if BP executives were actually charged with wrongdoing, we’d be in favor of them getting effective defense. What is the moral distinction between these two situations?
The most obvious is that in a legal matter the defendant is in jeopardy of losing more, namely personal freedom, than is the corporation. But I’m not sure there’s a meaningful distinction there. The reason we want BP to have worse/fewer lobbyists would, I suppose, be that we want them to lose more in terms of prestige and, of course, money.Similarly, we want to safeguard against wrongful conviction, but there’s also a public interest in making sure that terrible crimes are aggressively punished.
If the two situations are analogous, I’d think we’d want to err on the side of a rigorous defense in both situations, and, following from that judgment, relative cultural immunity for those making the defenses.