Nonfiction: Singing the Praises of ‘Big Business’

Week

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Some of his defense of business is more nuanced and less certain than his positive headline message suggests. He devotes a chapter to refuting accusations that Big Tech companies are evil, only to confess to worrying about the threat they pose to personal privacy, which he fears will get dramatically worse as facial recognition and voice-recording technologies become ever more ubiquitous. (Still, perhaps business will rescue us even from this, he reassures himself: “In the future privacy-protecting technologies will outrace privacy-denying ones” — well, maybe.) He argues that business should be trusted more, despite so many high-profile scandals, because it is less prone to lying and cheating than governments or nonprofits, or indeed than regular people going about their everyday lives. This could be read not as a ringing endorsement but as damning with faint praise.

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For Cowen, the real reason business is so unpopular, despite all it does for us, is that we humans tend to anthropomorphize companies, turning corporations “into people in our minds, and also in our hearts” (and even writing love letters to them). We take on this illusion, that business really cares about us, “to make our lives feel bearable and to help us feel more in control.” Companies play along in this charade, because it pays them to do so, branding themselves with human characteristics like being friendly and listening to our concerns. Inevitably, we feel let down when they turn out instead to be “abstract, sharklike legal entities devoted to commercial profit.” In reality, Cowen says, “we, as consumers or workers, are never really quite as much in control as we might like to think. And thus we are perpetually disappointed in corporations.” Thus writes a man who knows, deep down, that his love is doomed to be unrequited.

Cowen’s explanation is not particularly convincing. Nor is his two-part advice for clearing the current atmosphere of distrust. First, the public should accept that business will always fall short of our unreasonably high expectations, and get over it. Second, rather unexpectedly from a member of the famously libertarian and pro-capitalist economics faculty at George Mason University, he wants business to try harder at being socially responsible.

In 1970, The New York Times Magazine published an extraordinarily controversial article by Milton Friedman, titled “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.” At the time, this shocked even much of corporate America, never mind the regular New York Times reader. The article was intended to defend business against heavy-handed government regulation, including of prices and wages, that threatened to squeeze dynamism and innovation out of corporate America. Yet over the years, as deregulation and market liberalization spread across America and then the world, Friedman’s words were, I believe, twisted by many investors and business leaders into a simplistic justification for doing anything that increased profits — and their pay packets — regardless of the consequences for society and the planet.

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