Virtual Voices

Steve Jobs and the spirit of business

Business

In an age when the political left, from the White House down to the people occupying Wall Street, is demonizing business and the people who become wealthy in the business world, it is good to reflect on how Steve Jobs, as a man of business, made the world a better place not only for himself but for everyone.

There is a view on the left (not held universally there) that people make money by "exploiting" others. In "The Case Against Corporate Responsibility," Aneel Karnani writes, "[I]n most cases, doing what's best for society means sacrificing profits." Serving the public good cuts into the bottom line. But Jobs showed us that, in the long run, to make money in a free society you must serve people effectively. People will then hand over their money and make you rich. Ben Franklin expressed this in his characteristically pithy truism, "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door."

Steve Jobs got fabulously rich because he took an idea, the computer, which at the time meant huge mainframe, and put it onto a desktop and onto the path to every home. When Jobs and his crew floated the idea of the personal computer past the executives at Xerox, they reportedly asked why anyone would want one. It's like offering people a personal aircraft carrier, right? Everyone else likely said the same thing. But Jobs showed people how it could help them do what they were already doing, except more easily, more productively, and more beautifully.

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Jobs' innovations brought not only job creation, but also industry creation! The Wall Street Journal noted that "with the time many of his peers spent thinking about market share, Mr. Jobs spent thinking about entirely new markets." He anticipated people's needs. He didn't just supply what people wanted. He knew what we wanted better than we knew it ourselves. It has become commonplace for people to say, "I didn't know I needed this thing until Apple invented it."

In business, you make money by serving people, by improving their lives, by helping them get where they want to go. Sometimes you even show them where they really wanted to go but didn't quite see it. The successful entrepreneur puts himself in his target customer's place, then he sympathizes, innovates, and then merchandizes.

Yes, there are moral complications with this view of the benevolence of business. Businesses also at times appeal to our basest passions: pride, vanity, gluttony, lust. They give us luxury automobiles that they assure us will tell our neighbors, "I'm better than you." They market video games to our children that desensitize them to graphic violence and to treating others as though they were insects. They provide a torrent of the most graphic pornography to every home that does not have an internet filter with the ease of a Google search and without respect to age or marital status. They give us industrial food with little nutritional content but great mouth-feel and long shelf life.

These are serious issues. The market is not morally self-sufficient because the people who constitute it-you and me, the left and right-are morally less than angelic. But you cannot begin to discuss those complications until you have first appreciated this more fundamental point: to serve himself, Steve Jobs first had to convince you and millions like you that he was serving you. If you try to address the pathologies of business without first appreciating its underlying philanthropy, you will lose more philanthropy than pathology.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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