Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Back to More Bashing Business

Tibor R. Machan

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina. If you think business bashing is rife in the USA, just consider how much worse it is elsewhere around the globe. A bit of this was brought home to me during a telephone interview with a newspaper reporter from Santiago, Chile.

Amidst some general questions about business ethics and whether it is useful to teach it I was asked repeatedly about how "we can prevent the corruption that has occurred recently at some major corporations." No sooner did I point out that there is no way that such corruption can be prevented in some kind of formulaic, permanent way, the question was rephrased and put to me again. No sooner did I point out that there is corruption in all other areas of human life, especially government, than
my interviewer returned to the idea that there is a need for putting a complete end to corporate corruption. I went on to make clear that, after all, corporations are peopled by, well, people, so putting a complete end to corruption is a fantasy, a dangerous one at that, since any purported formula that is adopted will require human implementation and administration, so it is, thus, exposed to the dangers of corruption at that end and corruption more dangerous than what was supposed to be prevented.

Even after all this the issue kept coming up about what can be done to eliminate corporate misconduct, as if nothing I said before had sunk in the least bit. Nor did it matter that I noted how every human institution includes some more or less severe malpractice--journalism, I pointedly noted, as well as medicine, education, athletics and, do not dare forget, politics. The lesson from that was also missed, namely, that wherever there are human beings doing anything at all, their doing it badly is a natural risk. No, business isn't especially vulnerable, although focusing on business with special glee is, of course, a persistent phenomenon in most cultures. Why?

Because there has always been not so hidden bias against this profession, evident since the beginning of recorded history and, especially, in the writings of philosophers and
theologians. But why is that so? In large measure because business cannot disguise its goal of attempting to make life here on earth most prosperous, comfortable, enjoyable, convenient, pleasant, and so forth, as opposed to attempting to prepare us for the afterlife, for everlasting salvation which, by many accounts of what counts for most in human affairs, is seen as being undermined by it. Only a few theological schools think benignly of business, like Calvinism and Judaism. Most ca barely hide their disdain for it, even as those who preach the anti-commercial line see nothing very wrong in enjoying the benefits of the profession (contributions, donations, libraries, jobs, ad revenues, hospitals, technology--you name it and businesses provide it).

My interviewer acted as if none of this carried any weight, proceeding to seek for assurances that teaching business ethics will put and end to business malpractice. Well, has medical ethics teaching done it? No. What about engineering or legal or educational ethics? No. So isn't it utopian to expect business ethics teaching to permanently erase business malpractice from our midst? Never mind--how can we do it?

After this runaround I was asked what could at least reduce some of corruption in business and I mentioned that one thing that would help is if fewer people who write critically about business would realize that it is an honorable profession, not something innately base. Unfortunately since at least the time when Plato wrote his famous philosophical dialogue The Republic, those in business get a bad rap. This was due, in part, to the fact that the writers of such tracts were usually intellectuals, artists or members of some other group that had its own agenda to place their own calling on top of the heap. Plato went to great lengths to suggest that perhaps something like a philosopher king would be a great model for political rule. He also spilt much ink on indicting trade and business and wealth creation and for hundreds of years this mantra was
repeated by those in the humanities and continues big time today.

Very sadly the human species has had too many thinkers who were idealist of the worst sort, placing before us impossible goals to strive for while demeaning the possible and desirable ones. Another case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. And it is really quite unjust, when you come to think of it--with all those diligent people in business, breaking their necks to produce what millions of us want, working ceaselessly to help us all prosper, they are routinely put down, lumped together with the relatively few crooks among them. No one does this with
medicine or education or science but somehow the members of the
intelligentsia haven{t managed to grasp that such lumping is unjust as well when it comes to business.

When so many influential people still believe that business ethics is an oxymoron, no wonder that journalists and even those in the business community begin to let the notion go unchallenged.

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