Tear Down This Wall Separating Business And The Common Good
Paul Laudicina , CONTRIBUTOR, Forbes Magazine
Surely we are living in a challenging, if not a frequently depressing political environment. I saw a bumper sticker that summed up broad public disaffection with the current political choices by simply proclaiming: “Thank God only one of them can win!” Of course, this would be far more amusing if the stakes weren’t so, well, huge.
We’ve all had our moments of cynicism over the world of politics. And I expect that would probably not be unlike how Robert Maynard Hutchins, when he was Dean of Yale Law School in the 1920s, felt about the judicial system at the time. Hutchins and William Howard Taft, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and former US president, were in conversation when Taft said to Hutchins sarcastically, “I suppose you teach your students that judges are all fools.” “No,” replied Hutchins, “we let them find that out for themselves.”
But as tempting as it might be to detach oneself as a result of such cynical sentiment, there is simply too much riding on the shoulders of Millennials’, our next generation of leaders, for them to unplug — as so much research suggests they may be at risk of doing. We desperately need them focused and engaged in both public and private sectors alike to help lead us through these challenging times.
However, the University of Vermont’s brilliant co-director of its B-School Sustainability and Entrepreneurship program, Stuart Hart, has written that “Tragically, government preoccupation with the ‘national interest’ makes government less and less relevant in a world characterized by trans-boundary challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, and international terrorism.” But business must help government address today’s challenges. And some business leaders are, in fact, jumping into the fray and taking on responsibility to lead. In the context of my firm’s America@250 initiative, Coca-Cola KO +0.17%’s Muhtar Kent recently commented “…we cannot see America’s brightest future as inevitable. On the contrary, we must do our part to build ‘the more perfect union.’” And Tyson’s Donnie Smith wrote: “…to lead is to do the right thing, to stand up and be unafraid to enter uncharted territory, and to fight for responsible and meaningful solutions.”
So while the political discourse these days might be focused on building walls, the one wall we need to demolish is that which Pope Francis has called the “wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society.” I don’t believe any of us, as business leaders and proponents of market capitalism, need feel conflicted over taking on that task. The legacy – and assumptions about capitalism – of Adam Smith, the intellectual father of modern capitalism, have been grossly oversimplified. Smith was a dogged advocate of the view that free enterprise absolutely required strong moral and ethical underpinnings and that most market participants needed to be people (to use his words) of “propriety, prudence, and benevolence” in order for the system to work properly, imploring business “…to think and act morally in the face of pure, natural self-interest.” And this shouldn’t be difficult for those of us who understand that perhaps for the first time in history we have the perfect intersection of “doing good with doing well.”
Only principle and purpose can drive individual and institutional performance. The old principles that helped shape my parents’ generation—appropriately dubbed the “Greatest Generation”—that sacrificed so much to help free the world of tyranny, no longer have public traction. The principles that guided my generation, the Baby Boomer generation, which helped lead the great civil, environmental, and gender rights struggles of the ’60s and ’70s also are at risk of being subsumed by the phobias of today.