April 26, 2011

Conservatism and Business

Among Republicans, the belief that a presidential candidate with experience in the business world is preferable to a candidate without such experience dies hard. While this assumption is far from implausible, invariably overlooked are those considerations that militate against it.

For one, the incentives and constraints that constitute the private sector and those that define the public sector are, for the most part, mutually incompatible. That a successful businessperson on the order of a Mitt Romney or a Donald Trump knows the value of a dollar when that dollar is his own goes without saying; but when it is another’s dollar to which he has access, matters aren’t nearly as certain. When this dollar belongs to the tax payer, and when this businessman turned politician has shifted his attention away from monetary profit and toward political success, matters become even less certain.

Still, the business person, having spent his life in the business world, has grown accustomed to viewing life in its terms. Business is an enterprise. As such, it is inherently oriented toward the realization of a goal – namely, the goal of profit. It exists for the sake, not of creating jobs for the jobless or supplying goods and services to consumers, but of making money for its owner(s). Of course, it does indeed provide many satisfactions, but this it must do if it is to fulfill its ultimate end.

The danger is that the businessperson turned politician will look at the polity over which he presides as a grand enterprise to be managed. This propensity to rely on the language of business in speaking of politics is pervasive in America – it is said that there is a “contract” between the government and the citizenry, and that our elected representatives “work” for us, etc. Considering that most of us who talk along these lines have little to no experience in business, it is hard not to sympathize with the businessperson who fails to recognize that the concepts in which he has previously traded simply aren’t applicable to this new world of politics. Or rather, he applies them to the latter only at the risk of undermining the liberty that he is now expected to safeguard, for America is not a business or enterprise with a single goal toward which the energies of all citizens are to be directed or managed. It is, or at least was intended to be, a civil association, an association of free men and women who, as such, pursue the goals of their own choosing.

Thirdly, not only is it a leftist lie that conservatism and “big business” go hand in hand; if he dabbles in ideology or politics at all, the businessperson is more likely to express solidarity with leftist causes than those commonly associated with the right. Admittedly, he may not necessarily be a leftist; but insofar as his top concern is the bottom dollar, he is likely to have an interest in conveying the appearance of sympathizing with the left. Because leftists are prone to orchestrate boycotts and other collectivized efforts to disrupt business, the businessperson seeks to appease them by conceding to their demands.

Finally, the more successful the businessperson, the more likely it is that his endorsement of leftist policies reflect genuine conviction. As no less an enemy of freedom as Karl Marx long ago noted, “capitalism” isn’t all that much less revolutionary than the communism in which he thought history would terminate. By transforming everything into a “commodity,” capitalism unravels the bonds that have traditionally constituted society. It is this observation that accounts for why Marx believed that capitalism was a necessary prelude to communism, and it is this same belief that explains why many a student of conservatism, though supportive of the free market, have underscored its dependence upon virtue-inducing cultural traditions.

In other words, capitalism, no less than socialism or communism, is compatible with a “New World Order.” As much so as its rivals, capitalism is potentially corrosive of those “little platoons,” to use Burke’s words, those institutions intermediate between the government and the citizen through which not just our characters, but our very identities are formed.

So, it is indeed a grave mistake to think that just because, say, Donald Trump and Mitt Romney are wildly successful businessmen, that they are conservative, for “business” and “conservatism” are anything but interchangeable.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. blogs at www.jackkerwick.com Contact him at [email protected]

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