Tyler Cowen, an economics professor, is chairman of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center and the author of “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”
The word “progressive” is a prominent feature of political discourse today, with the political left pursuing social progress while often targeting business, particularly big business, as an impediment to progressive goals. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wants to make chief executives personally liable for the failings of their companies; it is common rhetoric on the left that “every billionaire is a policy failure”; and many progressives dream of splitting up corporations with antitrust and limiting their political influence.
Yet big business often has been a strong progressive force in U.S. history, not only by providing jobs but also by spreading emancipatory practices and norms.
For instance, McDonald’s, General Electric, Procter & Gamble and many of the big tech companies offered health care and other legal benefits for same-sex partners well before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015. In addition to dramatically improving the lives of thousands of Americans, the companies’ moves put a mainstream stamp of approval on the notion of same-sex marriage itself.
More recently, Apple, Pfizer, Microsoft, Deutsche Bank, PayPal and Marriott, among others, spoke out against or protested the North Carolina law that sought to specify which restrooms transgender people had to use; the outcry led to the eventual repeal of that law. Big business didn’t want to be seen as discriminatory, and the net result was for transgender rights to acquire more mainstream status.
This push for tolerance shouldn’t come as any surprise, as big business relies on the value of brand names and building market size. It doesn’t want any group of customers to feel put out or discriminated against or to have cause for complaint, particularly in the social media age. Of course, not all customers like these decisions, and so profit-maximizing businesses are performing a balancing act when they make public proclamations. But given that most businesses are committed to providing a positive vision of the world and their role in it, that usually results in a positive, universalistic message of tolerance and acceptance.
The larger the business, the more tolerant the institution is likely to be of employee and customer personal preferences. A local baker might refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple for religious reasons, but Sara Lee, which tries to build very broadly based national markets for its products, is keen on selling cakes to everyone. The bigger companies need to protect their broader reputations and recruit large numbers of talented workers, including from minority groups. They can’t survive and grow just by cultivating a few narrow networks as either their workers or customers.
These associations of business with tolerance and social liberalism are not just coincidences of recent history, but they also reflect longer-term historical trends. Centuries ago, the highly commercial societies of the Renaissance Italian city-states, the Dutch Republic, and 18th-century London and Paris were also leaders in social liberalism, whatever their other flaws. The commercial nature of those societies bred cosmopolitan influences and created a mentality of openness.
It is not a coincidence that the creation of the United States, which went on to become the largest and most significant commercial and business-oriented society in history, was based on initial ideals of free speech and freedom of religion.
Yes, the liberalizing process was deplorably slow in being extended to many, most notably slaves and women. But the spread of Enlightenment ideas led to successful emancipation movements for these and other oppressed groups. In the United States, the movements were led by the more mercantile North.
In recent decades, big businesses have worked hard to bring more women into the workplace. There is room for dispute over the causes and extent of the gender pay gap, but it is indisputable that women joining the workforce can gain financial independence and the personal liberty that comes with it — and had been denied to earlier generations.
The weirdness in U.S. politics has been rising, but the world of American business has never been more productive, or more positive in its tolerant rhetoric, even if sometimes to the point of cliche. Business is not just a source of gross domestic product and prosperity and jobs; it is a ray of normalcy and predictability in its steady focus on producing what can be profitably sold.
By all means, let’s be progressive and work toward realizing the ideals for tolerance and equality before the law. But there is much at stake when it comes to how that progress is achieved. Reflexive hostility toward corporations, many of which are among those aims’ biggest supporters, is misguided. Progress often starts with business, not government.