Although we have much that we might change about our government and business, it’s clear that we also have a great and noble heritage on which to build and many great leaders in whose footsteps we can follow. Unlike America’s Founders, however, we don’t have to start from a blank piece of paper.
The Founders set the principles for us, and they inspired the world over—from the French Revolution to Tiananmen Square. Our job is to pick up the torch of liberty.
In this chapter we ask, “Is this a biased view, or do others see a problem, too?” This time we look to three powerful proponents of capitalism and free enterprise: a billionaire, a Nobel laureate who was chief economist of the World Bank, and Business Week magazine.
The Charitable Billionaire
George Soros is one of the most successful capitalists in history. He has made billions and has given away enormous amounts to charity. He clearly understands how the system works—his financial success is proof of that—and he is worried about it, on a global scale.
Soros wrote the cover story for the February 1997 issue of Atlantic Monthly. The subtitle asked: “What kind of society do we want? ‘Let the free market decide!’ is the often-heard response. That response, a prominent capitalist argues, undermines the very values on which open and democratic societies depend.”
Soros’s article, titled “The Capitalist Threat,” directly addressed the issue of whether government should intervene in economic affairs, or if corporations should be unconstrained by elected officials (often referred to as laissez-faire capitalism). He wrote, “Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society. The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.”1
Four years later he wrote in Newsweek, “We need new ideas for fighting global poverty, ideas as sweeping as those that set the stage for global recovery after World War II….The globalization of financial markets makes it more difficult for individual states to provide public goods. National governments find it harder to impose taxes and regulations because capital can go elsewhere.”
He went on to propose the creation of a fund managed by the International Monetary Fund, which would serve three types of programs: “global campaigns to provide such public benefits as eliminating HIV/AIDS,” “government-sponsored programs to alleviate poverty,” and “nongovernmental development programs [which] would be particularly valuable in countries with repressive or corrupt regimes.”2
Clearly, the principles of the common good proposed by Jefferson and the other Founders, and espoused by so many of our presidents, are not at all incompatible with modern capitalist thinking. The problem, according to this billionaire, is in restriction of choices and excessive concentration of corporate power.
The Nobel Laureate from the World Bank
Stanford University Professor Emeritus Joseph E. Stiglitz won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2001 just after quitting his job at the World Bank. His remarks were timely:
As the chief economist at the World Bank from 1997 to 2000, I have seen first-hand the dark side of globalization—how the liberalization of capital markets, by allowing speculative money to pour in and out of a country at a moment’s whim, devastated East Asia; how so-called structural-adjustment loans to some of the poorest countries in the world “restructured” those countries’ economies so as to eliminate jobs, but did not provide the means of creating new ones, leading to widespread unemployment and cuts in basic services…. The voices of those most affected by globalization are barely audible in discussions about how the table should be reshaped and who should have a seat at it.3
Once again, true democracy is being thwarted by the influence of decisions being made on the basis of corporate income regardless of human cost. Those are exactly the sorts of decisions the Founders fought against at great peril to themselves. They literally put their lives and personal fortunes on the line, risked everything, to fight the corporate and political tyranny of the day and gain democracy. Stiglitz gave up his position as chief economist of the World Bank. Clearly, compassion and concern for one’s community are not incompatible with capitalist thinking—even for a world-leading economist.
Business Week Poll of the American Public
Finally, we turn to the American public, to gauge its mood. Has big business overstepped its bounds? Should it behave responsibly toward its community? What do Americans think?
In September 2000 a Business Week/Harris poll asked whether “business has gained too much power over too many aspects of American life.” Between 72 and 82 percent of Americans said yes, and 95 percent of Americans agreed that American corporations “owe something to their workers and the communities in which they operate, and should sometimes sacrifice profit for the sake of making things better.”4
By any measure, 72 to 82 percent of public opinion is an overwhelming majority, and the remarks of Soros and Stiglitz show that reasonable restrictions on businesses are not at all incompatible with success in business. Yet we see around us the sort of imbalance and injustice that our early presidents warned us about, in which so many large corporations misuse the protections that were created to protect humans from the biggest and most powerful. As Justice Black said, it was never meant to be this way.
In a Democracy…
We must level the playing field and return to the balance envisioned by our Founders, in which the highest priority actually accrues to humans and their communities—not to any massive authority, be it government or business.
The first step in getting back to those values will be to end corporate personhood.
1. George Soros, “The Capitalist Threat,” Atlantic Monthly, February 1997, http://www .theatlantic.com/issues/97feb/capital/capital.htm.
3. Joseph Stiglitz, “Thanks For Nothing,” Atlantic Monthly, October 2001, http://www
4. “Business Week/Harris Poll: How Business Rates: By the Numbers,” Business Week, September 11, 2000, http://www.businessweek.com/2000/00_37/b3698004.htm.
This material is not covered under Creative Commons license and cannot be published without the permission of the author and Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Copyright Thom Hartmann and Mythical Research, Inc.