The Anti-Business Mentality


TV Guide: Do you handle someone who may have something to hide any differently from a Baryshnikov or a Horowitz?

Mike Wallace: Of course you do. In the first case you're after facts, substance; in the second you're after feel, texture, personality. In both, the interviewer "role-plays." With the businessman he may play prosecutor; or if the individual responds better to lulling, then the interviewer goes that way.
—TV Guide, November 24, 1979

So there you have it, so obvious it could be missed only by those who have entirely accepted Mr. Wallace's prejudices: artists call forth the kid gloves; businessmen invite prosecution. Wallace is the star interviewer of television's most popular "investigative" reporting program, "60 Minutes," produced, it is worth noting, by one of the largest corporations in the United States (in 1979 earning 20.7 percent return on equity and 18 percent return on total capital—compared with 18.7 percent and 14 percent, respectively, for Exxon during the same period, when Exxon's profits were widely declared, by the likes of Mike Wallace, to be obscene). And Wallace shares the view of Ralph Nader, Barry Commoner, John Kenneth Galbraith, Michael Harrington, and, let us not forget, Karl Marx—that, by its very nature, commerce is evil and needs to be prosecuted.

Let's get the matter straight. The point Mr. Wallace let slip—while the rest proclaim it with religious, even fundamentalist, fervor—is that engaging in commerce is, on the face of it, fishy. We can assume that anyone engaged in business has vile purposes, according to this philosophy of social life.

Now, isn't this curious? Ordinarily, one would expect that participants in the many institutions of a civilized society be regarded as innocent unless proven guilty. Yet in the case of commerce and its professionals, people in business, the situation is very different. Why? Because for centuries the idea of working for one's prosperity, especially when done in concert via voluntarily formed corporations, has been viewed as basically immoral. Seeking to benefit oneself particularly by means of production and trade of so-called material goods and services (for in fact nothing is simply material in this realm), has always had a very bad press.

It is undeniable that criminal conduct can be found within the sphere of commerce. Nor can anyone doubt that many people in business are the worst enemies of commerce—just consider CBS's eager support of Mike Wallace and the widespread acquiescence of many corporations, via advertising, financial backing, and silence, in the denigration of capitalism and those engaged in business. (When has anyone, anywhere, seen a TV or movie characterization of a person doing business, pursuing profit, as anything other than a brute?)

But what is so remarkable about crime in the business world? There are artists, scientists, educators, priests, and doctors who are deceitful, lazy, negligent, and fraudulent in the practice of their professions. Yet few today would think that university professors are engaged in an inherently evil profession just because hundreds in their ranks, from one campus to the next all across the country and the world, carry on their work in defiance of professional standards. Few would declare art an inherently vile vocation just because hundreds of painters, composers, and performers are nothing but fakes and frauds.

Yet business is under attack—nothing new, of course, yet it's worth reflecting on the selectiveness of the ire as we come upon the latest manifestation of the anti-big business mania: with great fanfare, Nader, Commoner, Galbraith, Harrington, and a host of others are aligned in sponsoring a nationwide rally called "Big Business Day" (April 17, 1980). Disregarding the equally, if not more serious crime in the classrooms, in the editorial offices, in the churches, theaters, and dance studios of our land, they are waxing sanctimonious about "crime in the suites."

The reason is not very complicated. Of all the professions in a free society, business is most visibly and honestly engaged in seeking gain. The "visibility" part is the kicker. By no stretch of the imagination does business have a monopoly on profit seeking, once profit is understood as gaining for oneself by means of work, investment, patience, ingenuity, talent, and sometimes, unfortunately, less admirable avenues. But most other professions can, if they wish, hide behind a facade of humanitarianism—as though nurses, opera singers, and Broadway directors did not often participate in their crafts for the sake of self-fulfillment; as if these professions required a solemn oath of self-immolation. What they can do, more easily than those in business—however hard many in the business world try it—is to pretend that they seek much more glorious ends than the enhancement of their own "puny" lives.

None of the repeated charges against business as such, and against the institution of corporate commerce, have been made to stick. Two recent volumes, M. Bruce Johnson's The Attack on Corporate America: The Corporate Issues Sourcebook (McGraw-Hill, 1978) and Robert Hessen's In Defense of the Corporation (Hoover, 1979), bear this out conclusively. And the biggest source of these charges—the philosophy of Karl Marx—however influential it may be, is in a shambles, as many of its most ardent adherents readily admit. Yet the assault on commerce continues, often, and sadly, fueled not only by people in business but by many from the conservative end of the political spectrum who deride making for oneself a prosperous life.

The reason, as I have tried to indicate often enough, is that no one in prominent circles has yet launched a sustained attack on the basic premise of the anti-business mentality, on the view that it is wrong for human beings to seek to prosper in their lives because we all have a duty to enhance, first and foremost, others' lives. This, above all other ideas, is the most powerful and yet not adequately challenged premise feeding the vile and obscene clique that would, in the name of humanity, bring down one of the most fruitful and admirable social institutions in human history: commerce.