Long before “crony capitalism” became a battle cry, it was a staple of conservative and libertarian economics to note that big business is a fickle ally in the war for economic liberty (and 4F in the culture war). Like the “late Walder Frey” in Game of Thrones, big business is often tardy to the battle and keen on switching sides when there’s advantage to be gained. “The simple truth,” observed Albert Jay Nock, “is that our businessmen do not want a government that will let business alone. They want a government they can use.”
Big businesses usually become big in the first place thanks to the glories of the free market, but, all too often, they stay big thanks to politicians who find them useful. Medieval guilds petitioned the crown to bar from the realm traders with better and cheaper wares. Andrew Carnegie, when bedeviled by competitors, called for “government control” of the steel industry as a way to cement U.S. Steel’s status — and profits. Gerald Swope, the head of GE, paved the intellectual road to the New Deal’s cartelization of industry with his corporatist Swope Plan. Contrary to Barack Obama’s claims in stump speeches, the insurance industry backed his health-care takeover in the hopes of becoming government-protected utilities. How many digital-era Andrew Carnegies lobbied the White House for “net neutrality” to protect their fiefdoms — only to get more than they bargained for? (Of course, there have been exceptions. Horrified by what the New Deal had become and where it was heading, some big businessmen got together to create the American Enterprise Association in 1938, to promote a “greater public knowledge and understanding of the social and economic advantages accruing to the American people through the maintenance of the system of free, competitive enterprise.” That group eventually became the American Enterprise Institute, where I am writing this very column.)
Only a fool or a knave would dismiss this congenital defect of the free-enterprise system, but as a mode of analysis it leaves something to be desired, because its view of human nature bears an ugly family resemblance to similar Marxist or Marxish critiques of man as Homo economicus. After all, it presupposes that titans of industry are motivated solely by the desire to maximize profits. To which the informed and enlightened conservative can only respond: “I wish!”
Almost exactly 50 years ago, in these pages, Milton Friedman (praise be upon him) was writing that the doctrine of corporate “social responsibility . . . is subversive of a free society and a stepping stone to socialism.” In a lovely phrase, he denounced it for raising a “conflict of irresponsibilities.” The CEO who hitches his company to social fads, no matter how noble, is betraying his obligations to the workers and the shareholders, i.e., the owners of the company. As Adam Smith put it, “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”
And yet “social responsibility” is more popular than ever. Recently, Starbucks ordered its baristas to deliberately slow down production by holding retail teach-ins on race. Apple’s Tim Cook, CEO of the biggest company in the world, seems to be spending more time misreading Indiana’s religious-liberty legislation than debugging iOS 8.
The drive for corporate social responsibility — simply a pinstriped version of social justice — runs contrary to the doctrine that businessmen are out to maximize profit. Perhaps a better way for conservatives to see businessmen is, simply, as men — or at least a certain kind of man.
For understandable if flawed reasons, conservatives and big business are married in the public imagination. But it is an ugly marriage. Worse than that, conservatives play the role of the battered wife. Sure, there are the good days, when the chamber-of-commerce types peel off a few bucks from their fat wads to give the little lady her mad money. “Go get yourself something nice, honey.” On these sunny Saturdays of picnics and noodle salad, everything seems fine. Because we want the marriage to work, we think the good times will never end.
But the fairy tale doesn’t last, because the big businessman doesn’t want to be married. He wants to be loved or, even better, lusted after. He likes being a catch, but he never wants to be truly caught. Besides, the prettiest dames are never the ones at home helping to balance the checkbook and striving to raise decent kids. They’re the always-flirty movie stars, news anchors, comedians, and popular politicians who play hard-to-get. Maybe, just maybe, if the businessman starts wearing a turtleneck and talking about “social justice,” he’ll catch their eye and get invited to the right parties, or even into bed.
It’s fun. It’s exciting. Charlie Rose has you on to talk about your progressive policies and Sharon Stone coos about how big your business really is (usually for an “appearance fee,” left on the nightstand). Maybe Tom Friedman will write about a conversation he had with you at Davos about your views on Millennials and education. It’s all so thrilling. You’re no longer Joe Blow, maker of widgets. You are Joe Blow, statesman, visionary, progressive thinker.
And all the smart set asks of you is that you humiliate the little lady in public, through either your actions, your words — or both.
And each time, conservatives let him. We complain among friends at our book group, but we defend him in public and in front of the kids because the alternative, we think, is to besmirch what we hold sacred in principle, no matter how often it betrays us in practice. And when he comes home, shame-faced and sad about being used by those he thought really liked him, there we are with a drink at the ready and an encouraging hug.