We’re hearing a lot about “winners” and “losers”, with regard to success in business. Here’s how I would characterize the morality of many business decisions these days:
I’m sorry I had to burn down your house with your family inside, but you see, I have a fiduciary responsibility to the stockholders.
In the abstract, capitalism is an excellent way to encourage an efficient use of resources in a large economy. It also teaches the value of work, responsibility, ingenuity, delayed gratification, and a host of other positive qualities.
The problem with the way our particular version of capitalism works is that it condemns a good chunk of our society to a life of poverty, crime, ignorance, disease, humiliation, and hopelessness. It’s also encouraging us to poison and pillage our planet at an alarming rate.
This sounds so idealistic, doesn’t it? It’s easy to dismiss these concerns as “that’s just the way it is”. Nothing is perfect, and we should be thankful for all that our way of life has given us. Making fundamental changes could be messy and lead to unforeseen consequences. All that is true.
It would be one thing if we as a society understood that our system is just the best we can do for now. We should see it as our current compromise between our ideals of fairness and freedom and the harsh truth that human beings are irrational and have a strong selfish streak. Instead, we have a cheerleading section of free-market acolytes who proclaim that our system is the best possible one, and that to think otherwise is unpatriotic.
Even worse, they promote the immoral idea that greed and indifference to the suffering of others are valuable qualities in business, that precisely these qualities allowed “market forces” to created all the good things we have. I don’t think that’s right.
Many things that make our lives worth living exist in spite of our fetish for wealth and our bootlicking deference to the powerful and heartless. Our devotion to our children has no conceivable price tag. Educators, artists, and social workers are definitely not in it for the money. Policemen, soldiers, and rescue workers endure great difficulties and mortal danger for modest pay to keep us safe. Those working to protect our environment for our descendents have no economic incentive. Great thinkers and inventors are famous for their often indifferent attitude towards worldly wealth and status.
We need to decide what lessons we want to teach our children. Are greed, heartlessness, and a full belly the highest ideals toward which we can strive, or should this “animal” aspect of our nature be recognized as only part of our birthright? To fulfill our true promise, do human beings need to develop a great heart as well as a cunning mind? Do we require a noble purpose for our lives to keep the lure of worldly success from imprisoning our soul?