Saturday, November 01, 2008

Selling the Rope...

Tibor R. Machan

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." (Attribution is mixed!) What this means is that people who are in business aren’t political philosophers or economist but have an obligation to make their firms prosper. Because of this they tend to overlook certain possibly dire consequences of their professional conduct.

Business isn’t the only profession with this tendency. Doctors don't look into the backgrounds of their patients, nor do teachers of their students. 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. Who knows what is the politics of one’s barber, butcher or baker? Very few of us. And at times this can be a serious oversight. We could be supporting terrorists or criminals!

On the other hand, taking great care about the beliefs of those with whom we do business can also 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 just that, a place where deals are made and very little else occurs except accidentally or unintentionally. Every deal benefits both sides, or so each side believes, and that’s all that is promised, no more. Because of that, no one can complain unless something really big is at stake that lies hidden behind the deal.

In a small measure 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 Wall Street or Erin Brockovich. Think of Michael Moore's ventures. A very 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, you see, have the obligation to work for their owners, investors, shareholders, and so forth. This does not preclude some pro bono work or being considerate of the needs and wants of employees or even various organizations seeking support within their communities. But their duty is, first and foremost, 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. Not just as part of some limited pro bono work but full time.

For instance, Ashgate is a company in England, with outreach worldwide, that recently put out a corporate social responsibility series, edited by one David Crowther of De Montfort University in the UK. Each of the ten volumes is filled with essays that defend or analyze the idea that corporate commerce must be in the service of society, first and foremost. The company seems to be totally oblivious to the fact that its own management may be complicit in violating the very principles advocate in this proudly published series of books.

The reason is, of course, that the managers of the firm are looking at one thing primarily, namely, what kind of publishing will garner the best profits. If it turns out that 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 ordinarily.

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, at least without also putting out works that are critical of the Corporate Social Responsibility doctrine.

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. Perhaps those rope-makers and rope-sellers needed to know this before they went into business with Stalin and Co.

No comments: