Business, Society, Politics, and America’s Founding

In April, Florida passed a law penalizing the Disney Corporation, over its CEO’s opposition to a previous bill prohibiting teaching on sexual orientation in Florida schools.  An old question arises again: What, if any, relationship should business and politics have with each other?

The politics break down along predictable partisan lines.  One side aims to add regulation, and exact wider corporate compliance with non-monetary requirements, the other to regulate less and set economic growth as the key to better living, both to batter their opponents.  In the complexity of our economy and the breadth and depth of our concerns, a good first principle is that when it comes to business, society and politics, there are millions of views, not two.  For millions of views to get sorted out, we need to speak one bedrock common language, and cannot divide ourselves into two camps each speaking their own dialects.  

America’s bedrock, the Declaration’s creed, speaks to economics only in its embrace of the right to the pursuit of happiness and the duty of government to secure the unalienable rights.  That national ethos favors neither side in the politics around business.  Most policy rationales do trace their ties to our base tenets, fairly well.  If people in general can see our shared bottom line beneath the differences, that in itself would improve public discourse.  

On that base, any number of approaches and ideas could further America’s national purpose, to nurture our society’s continuing development in freedom.  Certain points are clear.  Of course the public economic goods – rule of law and that rule as guarantor of fair dealing and the security of property – are government’s domain.  Of course the individual’s rights against exploitation or abuse, and against coercion and fraud, are sacrosanct.  These follow in tight objective logic from the creed’s actual words.  The issues in our discourse start from the question of how far beyond our individual choices we can, or should, go in addressing business practice in society. 

To what extent is prosperity not just a public good, but a necessity for the protection and nurturing of rights?  How much beyond the consensus public goods should government go to promote or channel development?  How does a free society provide for its material needs, and how much is the outlet of commerce a fair exercise of the right to pursue happiness? There may or may not have been an old consensus on such matters, and it may or may not have been limited to a particular demographic, and abusive toward others.  In any case, any such consensus and the institutions that carried it are gone or altered.  Today any attempts at answers play out in daily business and politics, with little focused deliberation.

Interests of all stripes have pressured corporations for decades to show sensitivity to ethical, social, and policy concerns. Concerns have included climate change; Florida’s issue over teaching on sexual orientation; manufacture and sale of arms; location of plants and new jobs; policies regarding minorities; and myriad others.  Different approaches abound.  Some managers subscribe to “stakeholder” governance, in which social goals are taken up under existing management’s discretion.  Many funds, including public sector pension systems, engage in “ESG Investing,” restricting investment in businesses deemed harmful or channeling funds to support environmental, social and governance goals.  

All these approaches raise issues.  One view says that the “stakeholder” idea should give way to a focus on reducing the concentration of power in fewer corporate hands.  Another view decries “’holding large businesses to standards of public responsibility … [as] a way that government is trying to get corporations to carry out its public policy preferences.’”  In many ways issues like these mirror older approaches.  Socialists have long sought to subject business to the state, and America has our history of regulation.  Many seek to limit corporate funding in politics. The ’70s and ’80s featured extensive deregulation and tax cuts.

Events generate new and shifting pressures.  The Ukraine war made arms makers and oil producers less taboo, and ties to Russia more so.  The murder of George Floyd generated pressures to address racial issues more completely.  Politics per se make the work all the more difficult.  As one executive told the Wall Street Journal, “’I want to speak out on social issues, but I don’t want to get involved in politics.’” 

No consensus will form, and no answers even to the basic questions will arise, from any brilliant idea or person.  But, amid all the issues and all the new ones to come, America needs millions of us to have their voice, which necessitates a common language.  Common language might be used to devise more investment options to fit more variegated ideas of “value”; new communication channels to offer wider genres of products, services and ideas; or public consensus that enables coherent policy – whether of more active or more limited government – to support our creed.  Learning to speak it together is our first step to a coherent relationship of business and society.

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