The Victorian economist, architect, and art critic, John Ruskin, made the point that it is no more the purpose of a businessman to obtain a profit than the purpose of priest is to obtain his stipend. Of course priests have to live too, and a business must make a profit to continue and thrive. The question is: Where do we place profit on a pyramid of highest and best uses of businesses?
I would submit that profit should be the base of the pyramid, a necessary and foundational requirement, but not the highest purpose of any business. The highest purpose of any business is to produce a product or service and to do it in such a way as to increase the wealth and quality of life of the entire society. In order to achieve that goal a business would need to produce a service that is needed and that improves the quality of life, or a good that is truly good; a quality product at a reasonable price. It would be necessary in producing this good or service to be sure that the employees of the business make a living wage and that the work of their hands or minds leads to a productive life and a comfortable old age. These should be the highest goals of any business.
Placing profit at the top of the pyramid causes, and has caused, much mischief. The search for getting the absolute most profit has caused employers to bust unions, import undocumented workers, export jobs overseas, create worthless financial instruments, hurt the environment, produce items that lack quality, drive out small businesses, create financial hardship for the workers, and corrupt our government and society. This is not an exhaustive list.
This is not an argument against profit; not even large profits. It is an argument that society needs to place the need for businesses to make a profit in the larger context of corporate good citizenship. In the time that Mark Twain called the “Gilded Age” he stated that nothing is so respectable as money. In our current gilded age that remains, sadly, to be the case.
To correct the misplaced role of profit in our lives and our economy we must first work on our own attitudes. We must honor the honest businessman, farmer, or laborer. We need to quit honoring those persons and businesses that put profit above citizenship, money above honor, and personal privilege above the common good.
We must return to first principles. We must put people first. We must make it axiomatic that there is no real profit from pollution, no benefit from exploitation, and no human good from greed.
In light of this, the business of government can still be business, but our encouragement needs to be for those businesses that seek to be partners in the creation of a prosperous and healthy society. I know that there are many such businesses out there, and we need to reserve our encouragement, and resources for their honor and support.
Thu, December 8, 2011
by Karl Schilling