Recently I was talking to a prominent local businessman about how hectic our respective schedules are. Toward the end of the conversation he said, with an air of frustrated exhaustion, “And on top of my daily business doings, there’s also all of the groups calling for charitable contributions.” He added: “You have to help them, of course.”
In no way was he being resentful; he was just stating what was, to him, a truism. I took his comment to mean: “Yes, I’m selfish during the day making my own living—so therefore I must also give time, effort, and money to those who help others.”
Why did he feel this way? And why do the majority of American businessmen and women feel this way, too? Leaving his office, I wondered just how often those of us in business hear how we must help the less fortunate or “share the pie” that we bake.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with philanthropy, properly understood. I am for it wholeheartedly—if it is done as a side issue and not as a moral imperative. It’s this point that disturbed me most about what my business friend said. Today, it seems that many in business believe they must buy their way to moral respectability.
This idea is a shameful moral travesty and an insult to the business community. Please note that, when I reference the “business community” I am referring to those that companies and individuals who truly earn their livings and work hard on a seven-day-a-week basis. The “crony capitalists”—and there are many out there—are leeches upon the very system they often publicly criticize . These types will easily sell their souls to any candidate, party or ideology for a few million more dollars. I have worked with them and for them—and I loathe them: the so-called Republican “conservatives” who “play the game” to get along, principles be damned.
With “Friends” Like These…
The media, the universities, Hollywood, and Congress all have a sugar daddy who doubles as their whipping boy: the true American businessman (or woman)—especially the small to mid-sized businessman and entrepreneur. He or she is the one that they resent and revile, even as the goods and services that these people creates supports their comfortable lifestyles. And all the while, they call him the “exploiter.”
Yet the businessman will not find moral champions among political conservatives. These days, conservatives—from former presidents on down—are eager to profess their “compassion” and are among the first to trumpet the necessity of “giving back.” Filled with guilt, many conservatives and business leaders speak of the utilitarian advantages of capitalism: how it is a system of “service to others”; how it allows everyone to “love our neighbors as we love ourselves.” In this view, business is the productive engine that provides government the manna to redistribute to the least “fortunate.” The poor have needs, and business can best fulfill those needs. Therein lies the moral justification for commerce.
Would Mike Huckabee disagree with this? Would Rand Paul?
If we speak of usefulness to society (which I emphatically do not think is the proper criteria to judge anyone), businesspeople in fact do a thousand times more good than any protest-leading humanitarian you could mention. Businesspeople provide innumerable services, jobs, products, and comforts that ease our lives, making them safer and more rewarding. From our morning cup of coffee to the car we drive, from the medicine we take to the DVD we enjoy at night, someone in business—through effort, will, and ingenuity—brought it to us at a price we could afford. We should honor and thank these creators and producers for what they provide us instead of laying guilt or ridicule on them.
The Guilt of “Greed”
But in spite of the work that businesspeople do and the goods and services they provide us, they are constantly chided to give more and more—to be less “greedy” and more “selfless”—to “think of others, for a change.” Simply earning money by producing and selling things that people need and enjoy is not enough to justify a businessperson’s existence; those earnings are soiled by “greed” (the profit motive); and profits must be cleansed by doling out large portions of them to others “less fortunate” (as if productivity was a matter of luck).
Wealth is dirty, the cultural consensus cries.
Charity cleanses the soul, the conservative concurs.
Because most businesspeople are conscientious (which they must be in order to achieve any level of success), such unrelenting claims induce widespread guilt among them. They’re especially vulnerable to moral criticisms that are coupled with charges that they are “exploiters”—an image constantly reinforced in the media, in academe, and in popular culture. They are taught early on, as youngsters, and then told repeatedly as adults, that it’s not enough to produce and provide things; no, to be truly moral they must give away most of their profits to philanthropy and regard whatever’s left over as shameful self-indulgence.
Yes, there are ostentatious billionaires who obviously aren’t too ashamed to show off their wealth in vain displays of celebrity exhibitionism. However, when pressed, even these types (Donald Trump and Ted Turner come to mind) endorse the idea that businesspeople should and must “give back to society”; even they mouth self-sacrificial slogans and do-good platitudes; and even they try to sanitize their reputations through equally vain, ostentatious public acts of charity. Some are willing to pay millions in penance for the sin of being rich and successful.
Most people involved in philanthropic work aren’t vicious and many perform good, necessary work. They do, however, unwittingly feed off and benefit from the ideas of those who can be vicious and deceitful (especially in intellectual circles) and who are fully aware of the guilt they’re inducing and manipulating.
For whenever money is needed for any cause, special-interest groups crawl out of the woodwork and scurry to the businessman or woman. Are these well-heeled benefactors then thanked and shown appreciation for their generosity? Rarely. Not only are they expected to give, they are lambasted and attacked if they don’t give “enough.”
I love to imagine what would happen if, one fine day, all those checks would go unsigned and businesspeople refused to cooperate in their own public lynchings.
Rethinking Our Values
Meanwhile, who is there to defend them? Yes, conservatives praise business. But they morally justify business only to the extent that businessmen “help others” and “give back to the community”—on the tacit assumption that producers somehow take from the community.
Conservatives are philosophical Platonists in this regard. There’s the dirty, low, materialistic-yet-necessary world of commerce here on Earth; but profits from the mundane grind of trade and business can be lifted unto the heavens, transformed, and then sent back down to earth, like rays of light, where they are dispersed through the prisms of various government agencies and charity groups.
Businesses and their leaders should take pride in the noble, creative work they do, on whatever scale. Commerce fuels our lives, our dreams . . . our futures. The sad truth, however, is that those publicly viewed as defenders of business—conservatives—have probably done as much as any Marxist to discredit the ethical basis of wealth creation.
Conservatives, along with the business community that we all depend on, must reassess their own basic values. They must reexamine the ultimate reason for the success of the market, and the benefits that it brings us all. When they do, they’ll find that its practical and moral basis lies in rational, self-motivated individualism.
And they’ll finally realize that this kind of “greed” is indeed good.
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