Mitt Romney has been arguing that we should elect him to the presidency because he will be good for business and therefore good for America. President Obama says that he also believes in business but that he believes business needs extensive government controls to restrain selfishness and preserve the common good.
At issue is the characterization of our system of economic liberty as a heartless gospel of “self-reliance.” It works for the strong among us, they say, but it’s a raw deal for the weak. But, by nature, business is a form of mutual reliance, not self-reliance. It would work better in practice if more people in business understood that, as many indeed do.
Back in the 1990s, Hillary Clinton told us that “it takes a village” to raise a child and form the citizens that make the world a good place. Former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum corrected her, saying, “It takes a family.” Rick was right. But I think that Hillary was more fully right. (Of course, by “village,” I think she meant the federal government. It was her way of saying, “You didn’t build that.” So in that respect she was wrong.) Nonetheless, in the African proverb she was citing we can hear Aristotle’s dictum that “man is by nature a political animal,” meaning that he can develop his full human potential only with the assistance of a wider political community.
A family forms every productive person, and every family draws moral support as a family from a wider community. These community supports are necessary for forming the virtues that our life together in all its dimensions requires. Business activity can take place only within a moral environment that is sustained by those virtues. It presupposes trust, and thus all the virtues and personal disciplines that justify us trusting one another.
Employees rely on the business-building and business-maintaining talents of employers who in turn rely on the talents, energy, self-discipline, and honesty of their employees. Business and their customers rely to a large degree on one another’s honesty. And, of course, everyone in commercial life relies on legislators, judges, and administrators to be wise, restrained, and faithful to their trust.
But I won’t end this reflection with a celebration of business as a well-struck note in the chord of social harmony. Instead I will issue a challenge.
When business seeks profit by undermining the family (e.g., the pornography trade and large parts of the entertainment industry) it undermines the integrity of the workforce and consumer market on which it ultimately depends. Healthy or at least intact family life is the primary means of forming good character in people, including their ability and inclination to provide for themselves and then for one another.
Not only government but also business should pay much closer attention to the effect of its actions on the family. Business will rise or fall with the character of those with whom and for whom they do business.