Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 2: The Businessman - Can Capitalism Survive?
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CHAPTER 2: The Businessman - Benjamin A. Rogge, Can Capitalism Survive? 
Can Capitalism Survive? (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979).
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I should like to begin with a paragraph from an article in a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal. The headlines read as follows: “Scorning business. More college students shun corporate jobs, choose other fields. Teaching, Peace Corps lure Harvard grads: company hiring quotas go unfilled. Martinis, ulcers and profits.”
In the article proper, Roger Ricklefs writes:
The word on the campus is that business is for the birds. At college after college an increasing percentage of graduates is shunning business careers in favor of such fields as teaching, scientific research, law and public service. Amherst College says that 48 percent of its alumni are businessmen, but fewer than 20 percent of recent graduates have been entering business. Only 14 percent of last spring’s Harvard graduates plan business careers, down from 39 percent five years ago. Arthur Lyon Dahl, a June graduate of Stanford University, says of his classmates: “I know of almost no one who even considered a business career.”
One of the toughest obstacles confronting company recruiters on many campuses is a general atmosphere of scorn for business.
This last sentence has suggested my question for this morning. Can any right-thinking young man deliberately choose a career in the business world?
Is being a businessman a respectable way to go through life? You will note, I am not asking if any particular person should be a businessman. There are many for whom other careers are clearly indicated. I am asking only if it is one of the acceptable alternatives confronting a young person today.
I raise this question because I have a feeling that, on most college campuses today, a student could easily gain the impression that if he chooses a career in business, he will have embarrassed the college, his teachers and his yet unborn children.
I wish now to examine some of the more common campus views of the businessman to see to what extent they are valid descriptions of life in the gray flannel suit.
The first is the view that whatever else it is, a career in business is not a life spent in serving the human race, in doing something for others. If this were accepted by all, there would of course be no businessmen in this world, because it is almost literally impossible for the average man to spend his life doing something which he thinks is of no value to others. Even the drug pusher or the prostitute is led to insist that his or her role is an extremely important one in serving the emotional needs of society.
I take as granted then your desire to do something useful to serve society. Can you do it as a businessman? That many still answer “no” to this question is a tribute to the enduring quality of an old myth—the myth that in an exchange, what one party gains, the other must lose. In a voluntary exchange, both parties must expect to gain or no exchange will take place. A businessman is a specialist in voluntary exchange, and his success is largely determined by how well he succeeds in serving others.
Don’t I really mean, by how well he succeeds in deceiving others into thinking he is serving them? Isn’t a kind of sophisticated dishonesty a requirement for success in business? I make no claims for the superior moral fiber of the businessman, but I will say this: A basically dishonest man can survive longer in the church or the classroom than he can in the grain exchange or the furniture business. The penalty system in the business world operates with some real precision and certainty, largely unencumbered by a mystique of occupational sanctification.
There are dishonest men in the business world, of course, but if you go into the business world, you will be under no greater pressure to stretch the truth than if you get a job as an editor of a college catalogue or as a speechwriter for candidates for political office or a member of Nader’s Raiders.
But doesn’t the businessman, if he wants to get ahead, have to cater to the whims and caprices of his customers, no matter how depraved their tastes might be? Yes, of course; that is, he must serve other people as those other people wish to be served and not as he thinks they ought to want to be served. This may be what rules out the businessman as a public servant. The public servant is perhaps a man who serves others as they ought to be served, rather than as they want to be served or perhaps more accurately, as they are willing to pay to be served.
Now don’t misunderstand me; I have great respect for the man who says, “This is what I think it right to paint, or compose, or produce; if you like it, fine. If you don’t, fine. If you want to pay me for it, fine; if you don’t, fine.” This is a position of integrity and honesty; it is also a position rarely encountered in the business world. But let’s be honest with each other. It is not really the position of one who serves others, but rather of one who serves some personal set of imperatives. Moreover, it may enable you to make a living or it may not. If you have the guts for this kind of stance, go to it. Just don’t complain later that no one recognizes your talent with monthly paychecks.
If you are interested in making a living, then you are usually well advised to take some account of what others are willing to pay to get. Admittedly there is a way out; rather than serving B as B is willing to pay to be served, A can sometimes be paid with C’s money to do for B for free what he, A, knows to be best for B. This, by the way, is more in keeping with the modern concept of public service than is the direct exchange with B on a quid pro quo basis.
Whatever the case, you can, in fact, must serve others if you wish to be a businessman. I would go so far as to argue that the young man who goes to a country like Brazil as an employee of (say) Sears Roebuck will end up doing more real good for the people of the country than will the young man who goes there as a member of the Peace Corps. This is not an argument against the Peace Corps, which is largely meant to be symbolic anyway. But it is an argument for giving some thought to Sears Roebuck, even though you would be paid more by Sears than the Peace Corps.
Now that we’ve mentioned the embarrassing topic of compensation, perhaps we should pursue it for a moment. Isn’t the businessman, by definition, a person who is primarily concerned with making the almighty dollar?
Well, motives differ, even among businessmen, but I am not going to deny that most businessmen are trying to make money. This may or may not be an admirable objective in life. I would say this: the serving of this idol probably produces, not only less of heroism and glory, but also less of cruelty, fanaticism, and bloodshed than does the serving of such idols as patriotism or the one true church or the New Jerusalem. As I remember it, neither Socrates nor Christ nor Servetus nor Joan of Arc was put to death by a frustrated business rival. As Samuel Johnson put it, “A man is never more innocently involved than in the making of money.”
But even in this the businessman differs from the typical nonbusinessman only in degree. Most lawyers and doctors I have known have been able to restrain their impulses to offer their services free to one and all.
What of the college teacher? I can honestly say that I know of almost no men or women who have entered college teaching with a view to getting rich. Yet, once in the profession, we have been known to bargain for the limited prizes available in our profession with an aggressiveness that would bring a blush to the cheeks of the operator of an oriental bazaar.
A life that measures itself in terms of income alone is not likely to be a noble one, but there is no requirement that all who enter the business world must display more than a normal, prudent regard for their own and their family’s financial well-being.
Now to another question: Even if all that I’ve said is true, isn’t it also true that the business world offers no real intellectual challenges and that the businessman becomes, over time, a culturally deprived person?
Those who argue that there are no intellectual challenges in the business world simply do not know of what they are speaking. Nor are the challenges limited to those working in the pure research section of R & D. Conrad, in Lord Jim, says of the man who serves as water-clerk for a supply firm that “he must have ability in the Abstract and demonstrate it practically.” This is true of all roles of any significance in the business world, and the intellectual challenge in such roles is hard and clear. These roles call for imagination and for analytical skills of no mean order.
Now it is perfectly true that the business world rarely calls for intellectuality of the bookish variety. If you want to spend your full working day dealing with ideas, both your own and others, then the business world is not for you. You should join those of us who are professional intellectuals.
All that I am saying is that the business world requires the use of the intellect; it is not a kind of lotus land for the mind. Nor do you need lose all interest in the bookish variety of intellectuality. Wallace Stevens combined his career as an insurance executive with his other role as a poet. Crawford Greenewalt, once Chairman of the Board of the Du Pont Company, has written a definitive work on the hummingbird. The men who buy the works of art, who attend the concerts, who fill the theaters are in the main drudges from the world of business—and this in spite of the fact that in the usual Broadway play, the businessman is portrayed as either a knave or a fool. Many businessmen have no intellectual interests of this kind, but it is possible to be a businessman without also being a Philistine.
One final objection: Do not the pressures for conformity in the business world effectively silence whatever human or intellectual impulses a man may have taken with him into that world? I am referring here of course to the concept of the organization man. I can’t deny that the business organization does exert both formal and informal pressures on the individual to conform to certain patterns, although I think the extent of conformity demanded has been seriously exaggerated. But the most important point is this: Any organization you join, whether business, educational, governmental, or philanthropic, subjects you to this problem. The organization man is found wherever organization is found. If you really want to be subjected to no pressures of this kind, then you’d better decide here and now to go it on your own, whatever you do—whether it’s teaching history or producing glassware.
Let me illustrate: I would wager that there was more informal pressure on the typical college faculty member during the election of 1964 to conform to the prevailing campus anti-Goldwaterism than there was pressure on any businessman to conform to the prevailing conservatism of his class. Or to put it another way: Some of the most slavish conformists I know are those who are conforming to some in-group type of nonconformity.
If you wish to work with other people, your integrity is measured not by whether you recognize their needs and interests, not by whether you accept compromise solutions, but by your choice of those things where compromise is possible and necessary and of those things where you must never compromise. If you can’t accept even this, then find yourself a Walden Pond and go with my blessing.
So much for my case for the poor, misunderstood businessman. I am not arguing that the businessman is a hero or a saint, or that all businessmen are great guys who compose sonnets in Italian on the side, or that all of you should run from here to the placement office to sign up for the next interview. I am saying only that in deciding on a career, as in everything else, you should decide on the basis of reasonably accurate information. I suppose I could summarize it this way: The problem on the typical college campus is not that so many people know so little about the businessman; the problem is that so many know so much about the businessman that isn’t so.
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