The Future and Purpose of Business: A Transpartisan Meditation

Transpartisan Note #117

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

Responding to increasing attacks on capitalism and growing support for socialism, the Business Roundtable, representing the CEOs of the largest corporations in America, on August 19, released its Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, promoting a radically new direction for business’ purpose.

The Statement sought to separate business, philosophically, from the long-standing, defining purpose of maximizing profits and to embrace a larger economic and social agenda (in addition to profits).  The late Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman stated the older, ‘discredited’ view as follows: ‘There is one and only one social responsibility of business: to engage in activities designed to increase its profits.’

Friedman wrote this statement in 1970, fifty years ago, at a time very like the present.  In 1970, when we were still at war in Vietnam, the country was torn by political polarization and conflict, and criticism of business and capitalism were at fever pitch.  At that time, calls were being heard for business to change along the same lines as the Business Roundtable statement.  Friedman was responding to these calls.

As transpartisans, we believe that many conflicts are rooted in different uses of LANGUAGE that are never explored.  A hint of that problem here appears in the fact that Friedman embraced ‘profit-making’ as the central purpose of business, but he also, often, said that he thought the greatest threat to freedom in our society was the decline of both personal and social responsibility.  His concept of ‘capitalism’ was focused on freedom and freedom alone: freedom to choose, whatever one valued  material or non-material — pure Freedom Right.  Thus, he embraced the Israeli kibbutzim as a triumph of capitalism—because they are freely-chosen.

Since many socialists embrace the kibbutzim as a triumph of socialism (because of their communal values), the language problem rears its ugly head and is almost invariably ignored.  This problem goes to the heart of the Transpartisan challenge to the mainstream political debate and its defining Left-Right spectrum.  Perhaps without knowing it, Friedman—in this example, at least—was a transpartisan.

The Transpartisan Matrix can be applied in understanding policy proposals—working toward our objective of four-quadrant models—and also in understanding entire cultures.  Recalling the end of the sixties again, when conflict and polarization were high and social trust was low, demands were intense for forcing business to import Order Left values into their basic Freedom Right model.

Our thought here is at times of intense conflict and low trust, entire countries tend to shift toward multi-quadrant cultures; anyone who understands this point might therefore see  corporations would maximize profits by importing those other quadrant values into their business model.  Friedman’s vision might still be alive as long as no effort is made to compel business in this direction.

When societies are torn by conflict and social trust is low, people long for order—conservatives looking for it in traditional institutions and values, the province of the Order Right quadrant; and progressives looking for it in demands for justice as equality, the province of the Order Left quadrant.  As culture changes, it should come as no surprise that all social institutions will change, including profit-making companies.

Those who don’t like business wandering away from its core Freedom Right quadrants can reduce this temptation by promoting change in the political idiom toward four-quadrant, transpartisan values and institutions.  As long as the debate focuses exclusively on framing issues in mechanistic terms (with governments making decisions for citizens in areas where active citizens could make them) conflict will remain high and trust low, while demands will continue for business to find solutions for the essential problem of ‘Connection’ that only engaged citizens can solve.

(Featured image by Matt Henry and found on pexels.com.)

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