Machan’s Archives: Is Commerce Decent?

Machan’s Archives: Is commerce decent?

Tibor R. Machan

It is not a waste of time to revisit the topic of business bashing, especially in light of President Obama’s current attacks on wealth creation. He says prefers job creation, as if the latter were possible without the former. (Well, in a tyrannical system it may be, for a while; the population could be coerced to work, in, say, labor camps, even if no one were to want the work being performed! Public works projects have something of this about them, actually!)
Some might consider it odd to question whether business or commerce are decent endeavors but given that business is held in low esteem by many cultural commentators, as well as by Hollywood, by pulp fiction writers like John Grisham, by famous directors such as Oliver Stone, and playwrights like the late Arthur Miller (whose Death of a Salesman depicts commerce as a pathetic, lowly profession), the question is not at all negligible. And then there are the likes of Harvard University professor of government, Michael Sandel, whose recent book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, alleges that there is not much of moral worth to what happens in free markets! (Not that there is anything new about any of this. Earlier Charles Baudelaire, the famous and widely admired French poet, had said that “Commerce is satanic, because it is the basest and vilest form of egoism. The spirit of every business-man is completely depraved.”)

Should we accept this condemnation of a field of work—and its practitioners—that has managed to create prosperity and wealth for not only those who succeed in it but those who are indirect beneficiaries of its products such as universities, museums, and think tanks?

Most people take it for granted that medicine, education and science have merit and those doing work in those fields are doing the right thing. They can claim credit for having chosen a fine calling or vocation. But the same is not so with business. A clear indication of this is that there is a great deal of talk about the social responsibility of corporations, and how companies should give back to the community in contributions, something few other professionals hear of. Are college professors being implored to do likewise? No, because their work is deemed to be worthwhile in and of itself. And why is it necessary for people in business to “give back”? Have they committed theft so they need to atone for it by returning the goods they stole? No, there is something else behind the hostility toward business.

Throughout human history, East and West, commerce has been demeaned. Plato depicted the trader as a lowly sort in his most famous dialogue, the Republic. Of all types of sinners who gather in the temple, Jesus picked on the money lenders and the Prince of Peace violently attacked them, sending a signal that Christianity seems to have embraced throughout its history. The idea that money may be lent for interest is still attacked by some moral philosophers, as if foregoing the benefits of liquid assets does not deserve to be compensated.

Is this all OK? Should we be ashamed when we embark upon a career in business? Is it a lowly profession? Say, akin to prostitution or being a prison guard at a concentration camp?

If the answer is no, as I believe it should be, why have so many prominent figures shown utter contempt for commerce and its professional arm, business? What accounts for this?

A good place to begin is with Aristotle, the famous ancient Greek philosopher who had little respect for activities aimed at prosperity. He believed that the highest form of human life is that which is devoted to contemplation. Theorist who contemplate the eternal verities are doing the most honorable thing, and this idea is still with us. Professors and educators in general are usually held in high esteem. The Nobel Prize is usually given to theoreticians, not those who put theories into practice. The bad guys in novels, movies and TV are usually ones trying to make a profit.

One problem with Aristotle’s ethics is that he believed what is exclusively important in our lives is that we have minds. And to be good for him meant for us to be exclusively focused on what the mind uses, namely, ideas. Intellectuals, then, seem to live the most if not the only worthy lives.

This is not really true, however. We are not just mental beings – we are embodied. And we need to be good at applying our thinking to all facets of our being, not just to abstract ideas. We need to succeed as living, thinking biological entities not only as intellectuals. (Of course, there is much debate on just what Aristotle meant. But what we might call “intellectualism” has been the most influential aspect of his ethical reflections.)

Oddly enough, it is one of the main virtues Aristotle himself identified, namely, prudence which gives commerce and business their clear link with morality. To be frugal, industrious, and heedful of the bottom line is something demanded by prudence, provided we view ourselves not simply as mental but as biological (albeit thinking) entities.

Such an understanding of human life shows that professionals in business are doing important tasks, every bit as much as do professionals in medicine, science, education or engineering. Which does not mean, of course, that such professionals cannot fall prey to the temptation of corruption. But this is no less true in education, science or any other profession. There are quacks in medicine, frauds in science and so on, just as there are cheats in business. But as a profession, business isn’t like white slavery, pimping or fatal drug pushing, endeavors that are inherently morally questionable.

Why is all this of significance? Especially after September 11, 2001, where terrorism was directed at both the major substance and the greatest symbol of commerce, the World Trade Center, it should be evident that whether business is a good thing is disputed even today—again I point to President Obama’s hostility toward wealth creation—never mind the evident beneficial nature of the institution.

Not everyone follows what is evident or reasonable. Moreover, many who embark upon business, professionally or otherwise, haven’t the faintest notion of what makes this profession worthwhile or if they do they have a hell of a time articulating the case for it. They engage in it absent-mindedly and when challenged do not know what makes it honorable apart from its contribution to the wealth of a nation! There are many people in business who even look upon what they do with self-deprecation and cynicism. They see themselves as so called practical people who have abandoned naïve idealism and thus can pursue business because, well, they do not care whether it is immoral, amoral or moral.

Certainly such people aren’t going to make convincing defenders of this very large element of Western culture. And a defense the institution does require, given the bad press it has had throughout history and continues to get from many circles—philosophical, theological, ethical and cultural.

Furthermore, when professionals turn cynical about what they do, they aren’t going to be inclined to worry about doing it properly, ethically. So, in consequence of widespread business bashing the practices of business can suffer. The usual approach is to say that all that matters is whether the law is obeyed, never mind about ethics and decency.

The law, however, is not a sufficient guide to proper business conduct because it changes from country to country, even state to state. Unless those in business are guided by certain sound principles of business ethics, they will eventually lose their way. It is sometimes held that philosophy and its various branches are for people who are lost in the clouds, absent minded people, but this is a good example where that view just doesn’t cut it. Without some understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of both the criticism and the defense of business, the profession will always suffer from moral ambiguity. And that means it is going to be unstable and morally suspect.

None of this means that all people in business need to become well versed in the field of intellectual history. But they need to be aware that sometimes they might have to dip into that field, consult those who have contributed to the on-going dialogue about the merits of trade, commerce, finance, capitalism, market processes and so forth. They need to be aware that there is such a conversation going on and it has strong implications for the way business is understood and depicted throughout the world. And it may even have an impact on how people in business are treated, whether respected or held in contempt, something that as we know can have a powerful impact on the lives of those professionals.

There is a lot of discussion afoot about the origins of the Holocaust but it is not mentioned often enough that one thing that contributed to it is the hatred of business. Jews, unlike Christians, did not have any religious objections to trade and finance, quite the contrary. When they settled in Christian countries, they were usually the ones who took up commercial trades. Often this gave them considerable clout, for which they were then despised, resented, even envied. This is not a negligible portion of the story of one of human histories worst events. (And it is important, also, to realize that despite being Jewish himself, Karl Marx found the Jews open to severe criticism on the grounds that they were the quintessential capitalists, traders! This is not all that far from why the Nazis found Jews objectionable.)

People in business, like those in engineering and medicine, work in a field that unabashedly champions life here on earth. As such, their work is not always well received and is often demeaned, in fact. For capitalism, free markets and commerce in general to gain moral standing, this needs to be rejected and the reasons why the critics are misguided need to be understood—even by those in business, sometimes! A good beginning might be to explore the implications of another observation made by Charles Baudelaire, namely that “Commerce is natural, therefore shameful.” What if someone said this about medicine or science in general? Think about it!

Tibor Machan is co-author, with James E. Chesher, of The Business of Commerce; Examining an Honorable Profession (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2000).

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