Shall business defend "capitalism"?
By Alberto Mingardi
John McTernan, a former political secretary to Tony Blair, had an interesting article in the FT. He urges “British businesses urgently need to become actively involved in politics”. Mr McTernan is actually urging companies to join the debate on Scotland and the European Union, arguing that allowing the Scots to secede and leave the United Kingdom may be dangerous for them.
Mr McTernan rightly points out that it is not that “businesses do not want to get involved in politics” as they are “deeply and daily engaged in it,” but “lobbying behind the scenes”. Instead, Mr McTernan would like to see business making a principled case for capitalism:
The fundamental problem for business is that, while Thatcher achieved many things, when she reformed the UK she failed in one crucial area. She did not manage to teach the country to understand, let alone love, capitalism.
Now, I am not so sure that Scottish secession and eurexit are good cases in point. I personally find it not very appropriate for companies to take sides. After all, different employees may have different and fully legitimate opinions about the Scots and the English keeping their political partnership, and on the nature of the European Union. What Mr McTernan fears is that “populism” will create conditions under which enterprises will find increasingly difficult to thrive. That a number of European populist movements have a strong anti-market ideology is true, though this doesn’t seem to be the case with Nigel Farage’s UKIP, that criticises Europe, among other things, for its over-regulating vocation.
It is however certainly true that many business leaders do not seem to be keen to defend the profit motive, or the market economy at large. Sometimes they do use the right language. Sometimes they are reluctant to defend competition–because they often seek privilege and a set of rules that favour them. Sometimes they are perfectly good and competent managers or entrepreneurs, but have an ideological or philosophical inclination towards different set of rules than those that libertarians would approve of.
I thus wonder if it is really possible that (a) business leaders understand that an intellectual climate favourable to “economic freedom” is in their long term interest and (b) that they thus endeavour to make such case to a broader audience. This seems to be unlikely for a variety of reasons: first and foremost because “businessmen”, “entrepreneurs” or “CEOs” are not a very homogeneous group, ideologically speaking, in spite of some of their critics may believe.
Don’t get me wrong. I would love to see entrepreneurs wearing t-shirts saying “Capitalist, and proud”, and making the case that their work is essential for a prosperous and thriving economy. But I have difficulties in thinking of “business” as an homogeneous constituency for market capitalism – and I fear it is never going to be one.