Is business evil?
Very amusing column from Lucy Mangan in the Guardian at the weekend where a trip to her local independent bookshop threatened to tempt her from her from her bookish, left of centre, middle class intelligentsia comfort zone into the raging vortex of greed that is free market capitalism. Well, she had a thought that if she took a stake in the bookshop she wouldn’t want people hanging about in the cafe for too long, which seemed to mean the same thing to her.
It is easy to mock such woolly thinking – if booksellers couldn’t make a profit, there would be no bookshops. And quite probably no books.
On the other hand, business has done itself no favours recently with greed outstripping common sense in the banking sector, big businesses shifting money around the world until it settles in the lowest-tax jurisdiction, the horrendous factory collapse in Bangladesh, and pharmaceutical and engineering companies caught bribing officials. We can’t even caveat this as a big business problem – cf the “entrepreneur” who made millions selling war-ravaged poor countries golf ball detectors instead of the bomb detectors he promised them.
So is business a necessary evil?
I would say ‘no’.
Business decisions are not made by ‘the market’ but by people. In each of the cases above a person or people are making those moral decisions and coming up short. This can be through greed, or it can be through ignorance. And these scandals can cause as much lasting damage to the business as they do to society.
And beyond that, business brings fundamental benefits like political stability – a functioning local economy is one of the criteria used to measure the recovery of a war-ravaged state. It is business which has brought people out of poverty, not aid. There could be no free press if it didn’t operate in a market.
In Ms Mangan’s case, I suspect that she might find that her instinctive urge to bring more efficiency to her putative bookshop cafe would put off exactly the sort of bookish customer like her she would be trying to attract. Because capitalism gives people choice and, if they don’t like what you’re offering, they can choose to go elsewhere.