When I learned of the chance to edit a special issue of The Freeman, I did not hesitate with the topic I wanted to have explored, namely, how business is faring in our culture. I am slowly writing a book, Business-Bashing: Why Commerce Is Maligned, so my attention was already focused on the topic. For years I have found the phenomenon of business-bashing one of our world’s greatest tragedies as well as paradoxes. In the following essays we explore how commerce is denigrated by many of the literati and why this is a mistake—and offer a better perspective on business and modern society.
A startling example of subtle denigration of at least big business is available in what film critic Vincent Canby says as a mere aside in his review of the 1992 “docudrama” movie Hoffa. Here is how Canby delivers his clever anti-big business punch: “Hoffa’s ties to the Mafia not only cost the rank-and-file Teamsters millions of dollars but also set a pattern for corruption that tainted the entire labor movement. His is a quintessentially American story, for only in America did Big Labor become a big business to rival Big Business.” (Vincent Canby, “Big Labor’s Master of Manipulation,” The New York Times, December 25, 1992, p. B1) Oddly, the bigness of much of business is in no small way due to the heavy restraints imposed on business by the anti-commercial mentality. This has made it extraordinarily difficult for small business to shoulder the legal burdens of holding the regulators at bay, of meeting their irrational and unjust requirements.
The assault on business does not come only from the intellectual left. Conservatives perceive the nature of human economic concerns no less unfavorably. Just notice The New York Times’ conservative intellectual, A. M. Rosenthal, offering the following self-revealing comment: “In the 1992 campaign the Presidential candidates did their best to convince Americans that jobs, jobs, jobs were more important than freedom, freedom, freedom. Yes, the economy is essential and of course an economically weak American can’t help the world. But those truisms became puffed up to a moral philosophy. They are neither moral nor a philosophy. Economic policy can cost or save jobs. Foreign policy costs or saves lives. History knows the difference, as do mourners.” (“Zones of Freedom,” The New York Times, December 25, 1992)
This glaringly ignorant remark is illustrative not only of the flippancy pundits are licensed to perpetrate but also of what ails some conservative thinking. We here witness the “private vice, public benefit” outlook that has characterized much of it in modern times. The view has it that economic considerations for human beings are necessary but by no means morally significant. Jobs are not ethically important; life however is. Never mind that jobs are one of the main factors that make life possible for human beings. A public policy that stifles our economic efforts is as vicious, as vile as one that stifles democracy and freedom of speech. All these are aspects of a promising human community life.
Unfortunately prevailing political ideologies demean economics as dealing with something lowly, not with the proper, moral, or noble. The contributors to this issue do not share this perspective. Their articles should shed some light not only on the role of commerce and business in our lives, but also on what happens to a culture when that role is systematically denigrated
—Tibor R. Machan
Auburn University, Alabama
A Harmony of Interests
A man who criticizes the conduct of business affairs and pretends to know better methods for the provision of the consumers is just an idle babbler. If he thinks that his own designs are better, why does he not try them himself? There are in this country always capitalists in search of a profitable investment of their funds who are ready to provide the capital required for any reasonable innovation. The public is always eager to buy what is better or cheaper or better and cheaper. What counts in the market is not fantastic reveries, but doing. It was not talking that made the “tycoons” rich, but service to the customers . . . .
Under capitalism the acquisitiveness of the individual businessman benefits not only himself but also all other people. There is a reciprocal relation between his acquiring wealth by serving the consumers and accumulating capital and the improvement of the standard of living of the wage-earners who form the majority of the consumers. The masses are in their capacity both as wage-earners and as consumers interested in the flowering of business. This is what the old liberals had in mind when they declared that in the market economy there prevails a harmony of the true interests of all groups of the population.
—Ludwig von Mises
“The Economic Foundations of Freedom”
Aristotle on Self-Love
Therefore the good man should be a lover of self (for he will both himself profit by doing noble acts, and will benefit his fellows), but the wicked man should not.
Nichomachean Ethics 1169a12