Prejudice Against Business


With all the talk about media bias it may be worth noting that nearly all news services treat malpractice-'or even just the whiff of it-'at business corporations with much greater severity than malpractice'-even the blatant instances of it'-at universities and, well, the news media. I am thinking her of the vehemence with which everyone in the press descended upon corporate commerce in general because of various fiascos, actual or alleged, at Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and the rest. At the same time when UCLA has a real mess with someone selling body parts, or UCI with one of its doctors engaging in quackery, and so on and so forth, there is not a word about the general corruption in higher education. Nor is everyone up in arms, asking for the abolition of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, when reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Republic perpetrate out and out fraud. Is anyone agitating for federal regulations of the news media because some reporters are found out to be crooks? How about coming down hard on colleges and universities with bureaucratic supervision because of how badly some professors and other employees behave?

Now this, to my mind, is a fairly good test of prejudice within the community of commentators'-pundits, politicians, consumer protectors (yes, I have Ralph Nader & Co., in mind here, who never say anything untoward about anything other than business). See if there are people within these other institutions who do bad things-'or are accused of doing them'-and then gauge how readily the commentators attack the entire institution. Corporate commerce is clearly the winner here: Despite the fact that on average the measure of malfeasance within American corporations is not great and despite the fact that people at educational institutions, from elementary schools to universities, are being convicted on a variety of charges from child molestation to brazen academic malpractice-'not to mention all the misconduct that should be treated as professionally askew (such as professors letting grad students read all the assignments, while receiving huge compensation for 'teaching')-'the hostility toward business is notably more intense than that toward these other institutions.

Everyone knows that there will be bad apples in any profession. And where the press is concerned, everyone accepts that such bad apples must be reprimanded from within and the government is required to stay out of whatever mess happens to occur there. (Where were all the calls for Congressional oversight of magazines when The New Republic unleashed more than two dozen phony news articles on its readership? How about when The New York Times published a bunch of rubbish recently from one of its star reporters?)

What this shows is that when folks come down on business, it has far less to do with actual misconduct than with rank prejudice: Making money itself is the target, striving for prosperity, unabashedly as people do in commerce, is what is being attacked. Never mind the particulars-'they only serve to make the prejudice somewhat palatable.

Of course, this is nothing new-'commerce and business has been demeaned in most of human history, by philosophers, theologians, politicians, psychologists, sociologists and, of course, artists. Since these folks dominate the forums of ideas, while those in the business community are attending to, well, business, there is little chance that there will ever be fairness about the merits of commerce in human communities. But perhaps some of us can make the effort to point out that the mere dominance of such prejudice doesn't render it the right stuff.

From Socrates to our day, intellectuals and their adoring public tended to besmirch commerce and business. American society has turned this around just a bit because business has been instrumental in erasing poverty for millions. Sadly, however, even in the USA, the defense of business rests on a collectivist idea-'this is so even in Adam Smith's thesis that the value of the institution lies in advancing 'the wealth of nations,' and that we need to tolerate the vice of greed and ambition in order to secure the public benefit.

Such a defense of business isn't going to do much good for the individuals who comprise the profession. They need to be honored for what they do, namely, make good deals, not the side effects.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.