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R. R. Reno, Editor
To many Americans, business appears to inhabit a morally murky world where good is evil and evil good. I’m not talking about sweatshops, bribery of government officials, or cooking the books. Even the normal norms of business seem, to many, to violate the norms we adhere to elsewhere.
Avarice and selfishness are vices in family and social life, in government and in church, but many regard them as virtues in business. Pastors and politicians are often enough relentlessly ambitious, but we expect them to put aside personal advancement for the common good. Not so businessmen. Already in the 1860s, the English critic John Ruskin stated a common perception when he wrote in his essay Unto This Last that “the merchant is presumed to act always selfishly.” However much he may benefit the community; the businessman’s motive “is understood to be wholly personal.”
Ruskin claimed to draw this description of commerce directly from the economic theories of his time. Economists treated human beings as “covetous machine[s],” and tried to formulate the “laws of labour, purchase, and sale, [by which] the greatest accumulative result in wealth is obtainable.” Economists assured Ruskin that economics is simply the “science of getting rich.”
Ruskin found this view of economic life intellectually reductive and practically disastrous. For starters, it robbed the business world of its proper share of heroes. In other professions, men and women are admired for their willingness to put aside personal advantage and self-interest for a greater cause. We honor soldiers who give their lives for their nation, doctors who care for patients at great peril and cost, clergy who sacrifice themselves for their flocks. Even lawyers in Ruskin’s day were considered heroic as they expended time and energies for clients. Because business was thought to operate by self-interest, however, “men of heroic temper have always been misguided in their youth into other fields.” Thus business, which Ruskin considered as “the most important of all fields” in his day, fails to attract the morally earnest who don’t want the value of their life’s work judged solely by net worth.
A business owner or manager can be as heroic as anyone, and like the solider, pastor, physician, or lawyer, heroism will take the form of sacrifice. “The man who does not know when to die,” Ruskin wrote, “does not know how to live.” Businesses must be ready “to admit the idea of occasional voluntary loss . . . sixpences have to be lost, as well as lives, under a sense of duty.” Waxing dramatic, Ruskin compared the sacrifices in business to the sacrifices required of a sea captain: “As the captain of a ship is bound to be the last man to leave his ship in case of wreck, and to share his last crust with the sailors in case of famine, so the manufacturer, in any commercial crisis or distress, is bound to take the suffering of it with his men, and even to take more of it for himself than he allows his men to feel.”
For Ruskin, the son of a sherry and wine importer, the economists had it wrong from the start. Selfish pursuit of advantage is “not commerce at all, but cozening.” Successful business requires “tact, foresight, decision, and other mental powers” that are at least equal to those of “the subordinate officers of a ship, or of a regiment, or in the curate of a country parish.” Merchants and manufacturers ought to put their ingenuity, courage, and skill to work in service to their community. As the soldier’s duty is to defend his country, a pastor’s to teach, a physician’s to heal, and a lawyer’s to “enforce justice,” so the merchant has the social obligation to provide the goods and services a nation wants and needs.
Business leaders have special obligations to their employees. Merchants and managers govern “large masses of men in a more direct, though less confessed way, than a military officer or pastor,” and therefore they have “in great part, the responsibility for the kind of life they lead.” Employers must not only search out ways to increase profits, but are also obliged “to make the various employments involved in the production, or transference of it, most beneficial to the men employed.”
American business has a p.r. problem. More businesses operate by principles closer to Ruskin than Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good!”) than Hollywood or the press imagine. Yet it’s not only an image problem. A friend of mine who works for a large international corporation recently lost his job. It was no surprise. I’ve known him for nearly a decade, and the threat of a layoff has been dangling above his head the whole time. Perhaps the company did everything it could to retain employees. Yet I wonder: What sacrifices might the corporate executives have made to keep my friend, and hundreds like him, securely employed? How much richer and less angst-ridden would his life be if the company had demonstrated a modicum of loyalty to him? His company will never know how much more productive he might have been if they had looked out for his interests as much as for the bottom line. As always, sacrifice is finally encompasses a higher form of self-interest. ‘Lose your life to save it’ is a principle also of business.
Many things have changed since 1860, but American business can still benefit from Ruskin’s Lenten lesson: “the market may have its martyrdoms as well as the pulpit; and trade its heroisms, as well as war.”
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
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