"The only time a businessman makes the national media is when he is polluting the streams, making obscene profits or corrupting a poor, innocent politician."
With those words columnist Patrick Buchanan buddied up to the business people in his audience at the California Trucking Association last year. Buchanan was expressing a widely shared distaste for "the national media," and he knew he could be snide about the "poor, innocent politician."
What Buchanan's words further suggest, however, is the familiarity with which the business person has entered the nation's Rogue's Gallery. As recently as 1957, Father Walter Ong could speak of "the complete social acceptability of business in the United States." That acceptability has diminished considerably since then.
Citizens daily see media images of prominent business leaders who have poluted something, done something "obscene" in the world of profits or corrupted someone. Payoffs, bribes, false advertising, expense-account cheating and price-fixing make weekly headlines.
The whole business system is under attack, and people of conscience within it have sometimes joined outside critics in questioning its value and future.
To speak as most people do of a "moral breakdown" implies that once the business world stood up morally. Nostalgia, however, casts a false warm glow over the past. It obscures the centuries-old complaint that the search for profits based on competition has always brought out the worst in people. The "robber barons" are familiar figures in our past. What economic historian R. H. Tawney called "the life of snatching to hoard" always seemed to go with the territory.
It would be hard to find a historian who believes that human nature has fundamentally changed - or to find one who does not now believe that the selfish principle has gotten out of hand or that corruption is an acute problem. What went wrong?
Most observers agree that the turn from small-scale business in intimate society to our unresponsive huge corporation in the proverbial "mass society" made possible a decline in business people's sense of responsibility. Prices today are virtually fixed and the range of options is limited in an era of near-monopoly by large corporations. Meanwhile, these firms have learned to use advertising to lull consumers into the notion that their interests are being well-served when in fact they may not be.
A second reason for breakdown is usually associated with the fact that the value system behind business in earlier times has been virtually destroyed. Once, in this view, people shared beliefs about a divine purpose in what they are doing. They agreed on certain moral norms and goals. Sociologist Daniel Bell notes that "the great historic religions of the West" have all drawn the lesson "that a community has to have a sense of what is shameful, lest the community itself lose all sense of moral norms." That sense disappears as moral cynicism spreads.
The ancient idea that what I as a businessman do is part of a sacred purpose and that that purpose imposes some restraint is hard to cherish when the society loses its religious outlook. This decline of the spiritual outlook does not lead to a mere vacuum. G. K. Chesterton noted that "when people don't believe in God, they don't then believe in nothing, they believe in anything." They believe in competition and profit for their own sake, and make idols of these. "I'll get mine." Or, says Bell, they believe in simple hedonism and the pleasure principle.
A spokesperson for business might respond to these attacks by reminding us that our society as a whole has made a choice to organize the world with business near its center. And business is simply not based on altruism or self-sacrifice.
Business does not exist fundamentally for the service of all. The first moral duty of business is to return a profit on its investors' outlay. Secondarily, the business apologist might say, the public can be served when competition does lead to excellence and the lot of consumers is improved.
The moralists and the business apologists, then, operate in different worlds and the public is caught between them. But people have neither become satisfied with the way things are nor are they ready to turn to revolutionary alternatives. They will look for reform within the order we now have, or for a transforming of that order on gradual terms. Three proposals stand out above others among reformers and transformers.
The first asks business people to see that "we are members one of another." For them to insist on being entirely isolated and independent is futile. Business leaders who stopped caring about the causes of poverty or crime in the cities are paying a price as their investments suffer with the death of the cities. The essence of business may remain competition and profit making, but conscientious leaders see more reasons for having their concern spill over into a regard for their employees' well-being, for recognizing the dignity of labor, for human relations in a time of change in the understanding of the role of women, of racial minorities, and the like.
Second, while self-sacrifice and business are not simply compatible, some of the business leaders are taking a second look at their polluting, their misuse of limited natural resources, their exploitation of employees and customers. Some are beginning to see that working for long-range self-interest, which includes some vision of a future, is preferable to short-range and thus destructive self-interest.
Finally, personal morality can make a difference even in a partly unreformed system - the only kind of system humans will ever get. "All the kids do it," the excuse few adults really tolerate, has been elevated to principle in ate, has been elevated to principle in many parts of the business world. But if many "kids" indeed "do it" and some of them end up exposed in the Rogue's Gallery, others manifestly do not.
What one moral thinker calls an "ethics of character" seems to be coming back, not as a substitute for reform of the system but as an agent of its reform.
If the code words Vietnam and Watergate are to mean anything in the awareness that those spheres of Big Business, Big Government, and the like - in short the Establishment Power Structure - are run by little people. It was individuals who chose or might not have chosen illegal acts. It was persons who went to court. And it was men and women who acted morally to turn the directions. Somewhere along the way their character had been formed to withstand the temptations to "get their own" or to be content with short-range self-interest of the worst sort.
Employees and competitors usually know what standards are being projected "at the top."
Business people concerned about the moral condition are finding it necessary to begin by exploring their own value systems, the images they project, the decisions they make in the pyramids of power. Business does not have to be as culpable and tainted as it currently is. To see business in a large context of values, to have it work for at least longer-range self-interests, and to help society develop and accent people of moral character in power is not a program that will satisfy all moralists, prophets, or utopians.
But these are at least first steps for those who want to produce a more humane world, both for the people who are responsible for business and for those who are its victims and beneficiaries.