Lenin — or was it Marx or Stalin? — is said to have observed that “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”
This means people who are in business aren’t political philosophers but have an obligation to make their firms prosper. Thus they tend to overlook possibly dire consequences of their conduct.
Business isn’t the only profession with this tendency. Doctors don’t look into the backgrounds of their patients. Indeed, most professionals offer their services without looking into the motivation of those with whom they are trading.
And nearly all of us do this when we trade — we go to the mall and purchase stuff from people and companies we barely know.
On the other hand, taking care about the beliefs of those with whom we do business can amount to a mistake. Suppose you are Jewish and after the fall of the Third Reich you decided never to purchase a German made automobile, figuring that many who would profit from the deal were complicit in the Holocaust. Well, but many were not, as well.
The market place is a place where deals are made and very little else occurs except accidentally or unintentionally. Every deal benefits both sides, and that’s all that is promised. Because of that, no one can complain unless something really big is at stake that lies hidden behind the deal.
It is possible to witness this all around us. Television and movie production firms bank roll projects that present business executives as shysters. Just think of Michael Moore’s ventures.
An ironic instance of this is the many volumes published by book companies supporting the idea of corporate social responsibility or stakeholder theory or corporate management, an idea that actually undermines capitalism.
The managers of these companies have the obligation to work for their owners and investors. This does not preclude some pro bono work or being considerate of the needs and wants of employees. But their duty is to enhance the economic welfare of their owners by means of the tasks they set out to perform — publishing books.
Nonetheless, many publishers put out books that advocate just the opposite. Instead of serving shareholders, the authors and contributors of these books want companies to serve stakeholders or society.
Ashgate is a company in England that recently put out a corporate social responsibility series. Each of the 10 volumes is filled with essays defending or analyzing the idea that corporate commerce must be in the service of society. The company seems oblivious to the fact that its own management may be complicit in violating the principles advocated in this series of books.
The reason, of course, is the managers of the firm are looking at one thing primarily — what kind of publishing will garner the best profits. If it turns out the type of publishing that does this amounts to bringing out books that actually attack, consider it immoral for, companies serving their owners and investors first and foremost, that’s not their concern.
Not that it should never be. Once the managers can see that publishing these kinds of books undermines the very principles in line with which they carry on their business, they would be remiss continuing their program.
The division of labor is a good thing, economically, but when it comes to the broader area of political economy, one must become a conscientious citizen, not simply a skilled profit seeker.
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at TMachan@link.freedom.com