I’ve done my share of business-bashing on this blog–pointing out corporate overreach and bad behavior. But as Frank Bruni recently reminded us in a timely and excellent column for the New York Times, there’s a sunny side to greed.
Self-interest has contributed to sanity on a wide number of issues. As Bruni notes,
They’ve been great on the issue of the Confederate flag. Almost immediately after the fatal shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., several prominent corporate leaders, including the heads of Walmart and Sears, took steps to retire the banner as a public symbol of the South; others made impassioned calls for that.
And when Nikki Haley, the South Carolina governor, said that the Confederate flag at the State House should come down, she did so knowing that Boeing and BMW, two of the state’s major employers, had her back. In fact the state’s chamber of commerce had urged her and other politicians to see the light.
Eli Lilly, American Airlines, Intel and other corporations were crucial to the defeat or amendment of proposed “religious freedom” laws in Indiana, Arkansas and Arizona over the last year and a half. Their leaders weighed in against the measures, which licensed anti-gay discrimination, and put a special kind of pressure on politicians, who had to worry about losing investment and jobs if companies with operations in their states didn’t like what the government was doing.
Bruni quotes a business consultant for the observation that successful businesses must be more responsive to the general public than politicians.
If you’re a politician and all you care about is staying in office, you’re worried about a small group of voters in your district who vote in the primary,” he told me, referring to members of the House of Representatives. “If you’re a corporation, you need to be much more in sync with public opinion, because you’re appealing to people across the spectrum.”
Does this sensitivity to the population outweigh the damage that some corporations do to the environment? Does it make up for others’ exploitation of workers? Of course not, but as Bruni notes, “it does force you to admit that corporations aren’t always the bad guys. Sometimes the bottom line matches the common good.”
And it should force those of us who think and write about such matters to make important distinctions. I get angry when people make sweeping generalizations based on race, religion or sexual orientation, because there is no monolithic group. Every human category includes assholes and saints and everything in-between.
That’s equally true of corporations and business enterprises.
The market provides many incentives for good behavior. As I noted yesterday, many existing public policies reward less salutary behaviors, and those need to change.