Column on Selling The Rope…

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.

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4 Responses to Column on Selling The Rope…

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