Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Chance for Freedom?

Tibor R. Machan

Lugano, Switzerland: Over the last two and a half decades or so I have been attending conferences organized by the Business & Economics Society International that has its home at Assumption College in New Hampshire. This summer I believe I have attended for the fifth or sixth time, often presenting papers and taking part in discussions about business ethics and political economy.

When I first decided to submit a paper I was very skeptical, given how hostile so many academics are toward a fully free market. And indeed, aside from the organizers who seem to have a penchant for a bit of fireworks at these events, nearly all those who encountered my defense of free markets, private property rights, globalization, free trade agreements, and so forth found what I was saying nearly abhorrent. Nonetheless, given the at least nominal commitment of academics to wide open discussions in their various disciplines, I managed to find some who would carry on a civilized conversation about my radical capitalist, libertarian position. But as far as sympathies for it, there was very little of that to be found and some were pretty hostile, charging me with the usual stuff about being an apologist for the ruling class, etc.

But because I do have a bit of a knack for presenting these ideas in a civil tone, the organizers kept accepting my submissions and in time invited me to give one of the keynote addresses at two or three of these meetings. That is just what happened this year when I presented my critique of stakeholder theory—or Corporate Social Responsibility—to a surprisingly packed house at the conference in Lugano, Switzerland.

Although there were several people who showed their disdain, even hostility toward the position I laid out, I have to say things were quite different this time from what they had been back when I started to attend these meetings. To my very pleasant surprise a great many in this year’s audience were very receptive and even went out of their way to express their approval of someone with my position having been provided with a prominent spot in the proceedings. And some of these were among the ones who showed little patience back a few years ago for anything that smacked of support for free market capitalism.

It is, of course, very difficult to assess whether a set of arguments is gaining favor with a proportionately growing number of people in some field but my impression over the last few years has been that around the globe capitalism is gaining ground, at least as a way to understand how economies should work. Scholars from New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and many other places who attend these conferences appear to be looking with greater favor at privatization, globalization, the system of private property rights and freedom of contracts than they did just a few years ago. Indeed, it is most often academics from America and Great Britain who voice vehement opposition, even outright hostility, while those from newly emerging countries, ones who are just now beginning to join the international economic and business community as active participants, show much interest and express support.

Of course I am under no illusion that these ideas I find most sensible are sweeping the globe, especially in academic institutions. Even this last time several of the scholars in the audience actually booed me, not just once but repeatedly, when I argued my case for the right of shareholders to set the direction managers should follow instead of having public authorities and folks like Ralph Nader call the shots. The governmental habit is still quite pervasive! This reactionary trust in top down organization and management of the economic affairs of countries, one so reminiscent of mercantilism despite the self-serving term “progressive” its cheerleaders use to call it, is very disconcerting for anyone who wishes economic well being for people throughout the globe.

It always baffles me a bit that a great many educated folks just stick to the faith that when government undertakes to address a problem, there will be solutions bubbling out all over the place, as if those in government possessed magical powers. At the same time, oddly, their distrust of people in business persists, as if free men and women had some innate proclivity toward mendacity the moment they entered the market place.

Still, I am again encouraged and perhaps so should be all those who hold out for the promise of liberty. It is no utopia but beats all alternatives hands down with what it has achieved and has the potential for achieving.

No comments: