Walgreens has been getting a lot of backlash for considering moving its headquarters to Switzerland in a move known as corporate inversion. Basically, by purchasing a U.K. drugstore chain and showing that more than 20% of the company is foreign-owned, they can pull a corporate Depardieu and defect to another country for lower taxes. Fortune Magazine isn’t the only one calling them Un-American for trying to save billions of dollars in taxes. Their Facebook page is totally congested with vitriolic comments casting shame and threatening to boycott.
So what should they do?
I think that’s the wrong question. I think the fact that asking that question is our natural impulse shows that we’re thinking about social problems in the wrong way. “What should they do?” as if us talking about it is going to have an impact on their decision. “They should…” as if the universe will echo our judgments in the nightmares of Walgreens CEO Gregory Wasson until he wakes up in a sweat with a newfound conviction to keep Walgreens in the United States.
Regardless of what they should do, we all know what they will do: the selfish thing. If they decide to keep their HQ in the United States it won’t be for patriotic reasons, it will be because they decided that it was ultimately most profitable for their shareholders to do so.
We should expect nothing less. Corporations, just like people, simply respond to the system of rewards and consequences woven into their environments. So when they make choices like the one that Walgreens is considering that are bad for the rest of us, we have to look at that as the symptom of a structural problem.
Again, it’s the same with people. It’s just as easy to say, “Walgreens shouldn’t invert,” as it is to say, “People shouldn’t buy conflict diamonds.” And while I agree with both of those statements, I don’t want the quality of society to be determined by whether or not we can win head-on-head arguments with people about what’s in their best interest.
It is a supreme waste of time to think that Walgreens’ Facebook page is a battleground for American industry. If actions tells us about the environment, and we don’t like the action, then we need to change the environment. Changes in the individual will follow suit.
We focus too much on individual wrongdoing and lose sight of the big picture. Not only does this distract us from a more important conversation about what we want society to look like, it tricks us into thinking that individual action should be the main focus of social change. Our natural impulse when we see something we don’t like shouldn’t be to attack it, it should be to question how it came about in the first place.