When liberalism was young, it had great faith in markets—specifically, the ability of markets to ease social conflict. The theory had a French name, the doux commerce thesis, and it went like this. Trade would encourage people to set aside tribal attachments and disagreements on big questions so that they could make money. Why argue about religion and politics when doing so could get in the way of business? As people became wealthier, the theory maintained, they would care less about divisive identities and issues; personal relations would thus become more tranquil and productive. This virtuous cycle would work both domestically and globally, creating greater peace and prosperity both within and among nations.
Liberalism seems to have outgrown its early enthusiasm for value-neutral markets. In the West, major corporations routinely make statements on hot-button social and political issues. In the United States, they intervene in battles over religious freedom, LGBT rights, and, most recently, voting requirements. Overwhelmingly, big companies take the progressive side in these debates, although a few firms have taken conservative positions, and pushback from the right is growing.
There are many reasons for this growth in corporate activism, but the most important explanation is cultural. America is a polarized country and, its great wealth notwithstanding, its divisions inevitably affect our economy. There is a flaw in the doux commerce thesis that conservatives like Burke saw from the beginning. The neutral market does not create tolerance for diverse views; rather, it’s the other way around. Tolerance for diverse views creates the neutral market; when tolerance disappears, the market becomes as polarized as everything else.
Enlightenment thinkers believed that the market, which distributes rewards and punishments irrespective of belief, could end the religious conflicts that had disrupted European politics since the Reformation. In London’s Royal Exchange, Voltaire famously wrote, it made no difference whether one was a Jew, a Muslim, or a Christian, so long as one’s credit was good. Everyone traded on equal terms and only “bankrupts” were considered “Infidels.” Commerce trained people to think of religious commitments—later liberals would refer to them as “comprehensive doctrines”—as incidental concerns that should not be allowed to impede mutually profitable exchanges. The market encouraged a benign indifference that, over time, would lead to greater tolerance of opposing viewpoints and social peace.
From the beginning, conservatives were skeptical of the doux commerce thesis. Markets have always existed, in every culture, and most of them have not been associated with liberalism. Burke, for example, believed that the doux commerce thesis got cause and effect backward. The sort of market Voltaire observed at the Royal Exchange, where merchants traded peaceably and overlooked religious differences, resulted from habits of mind that had grown in the West over centuries. Voltaire no doubt exaggerated how tolerant the Royal Exchange really was, but, in any case, it was not the market Voltaire admired that had led to liberal tolerance. It was liberal tolerance that had led to the market Voltaire admired.
Today’s corporate activism demonstrates the truth of Burke’s criticism. In the twenty-first century, American business does not avoid political and social controversies; it seeks them out. Several years ago, corporations prevailed on Indiana governor Mike Pence to approve revisions to the state’s amended Religious Freedom Restoration Act, on the ground that the act discriminated against LGBT persons. This year, a business coalition opposed legislation in South Dakota that would have prohibited transgender persons from competing in high school sports. In response to corporate criticism, Gov. Kristi Noem refused to sign the bill.
Most recently, corporations have intervened in controversies over new voting requirements that, according to civil rights groups, intentionally discriminate against minorities. Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola, both headquartered in Georgia, condemned new requirements in that state (after some temporizing); Texas-based corporations like American Airlines similarly opposed revisions to voting requirements there. Last month, hundreds of executives and companies released a public letter in the New York Times expressing opposition to legislation that would restrict “any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot.”
I am not so interested in the merits of the voting requirements debate here. The point is that American business intervened in a heated partisan controversy—just the sort of thing, according to the doux commerce thesis, that should not occur. In the controversy over voting legislation, as in earlier battles over religious freedom and transgender rights, business intervened on the progressive side, which is not surprising, given the generally progressive values of the professional class from which corporate managers mostly come.
But not all the corporate activism is on the left. A few businesses have taken conservative positions on public controversies—think about Hobby Lobby and the contraception mandate. And groups on the right are encouraging conservative shareholders to attend annual corporate meetings to push back on progressives.
All this is happening because, contrary to the doux commerce thesis, people do not easily check their values at the door when they enter the marketplace. And in a society as evenly divided and politically saturated as ours, it’s only natural that many people will want the firms for which they work or with which they do business to reflect their side in public debates. “Employees today…want to know what you stand for,” one CEO recently told the Wall Street Journal. That goes for customers, too. In fact, firms may no longer have the option of staying silent on public controversies, since customers increasingly expect corporations to have political and social commitments. “[I]n these fraught times,” a corporate lawyer recently explained at Harvard Law School’s Forum on Corporate Governance, customers often construe silence on a political controversy as itself “a statement.”
Liberalism depends for its success on habits of mind that liberalism itself cannot create. The doux commerce thesis works fine where people mostly agree on public controversies, or where people believe they can safely remain indifferent to them. In a society like ours, though, where views are polarized and politics is everywhere, it is naïve to think the market will be an exception, or that commerce will somehow cause people to forget about their deep disagreements. Until America reaches a new social equilibrium, our market is likely to be as contentious as everything else.
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