When I hear the liberal opinion about business explained to me by a conservative, I often find myself trying to walk back the explanation because I fear that liberals are being misrepresented. Then I wonder if maybe I don’t fit the liberal position on the topic. When I discuss liberals and conservatives, I typically try to clear out opinions on social issues and focus specifically on one key factor: government involvement. The extent to which a person will want the government involved in various activities is generally where they are placed on the board. While it’s hard to really ignore social issues, the fact is that most social issues flip to the other side for both liberals and conservatives compared to business and economic issues. Think about it…conservatives want deregulation of business, while at the same time they want government to make women’s health care decisions and decide whether two lesbians get to have the same tax benefits as any other married couple that lives together and shares everything. That’s awfully invasive for a group of Reaganites that generally feel government is the problem.
What trips us up is that social issues are the ones that make our hearts hurt. Economic issues are the ones that make our brains hurt. We like to have our hearts hurt because in the movies, there’s always hope and the belief that the pain will make us stronger. Worries about the economy, however, do not usually offer hope. I’m not saying there isn’t any economic hope; I’m just saying the people that get the most airtime and column inches (at least that anyone pays attention to) are the ones that are absolutely sure the economy is going to make us all gay and destroy us with hurricanes. Point is, we don’t like it when our brains hurt, because we don’t understand the thing that is bothering us, and are more susceptible to hyperbole and lies. The economy can’t be solved by “an hour-and-a-half of beach houses in the rain until the woman turns around and realizes love was here all along.“
Anyway, the point is that trying to consider all issues across the board requires several axes (Nerd Alert: “axes” is the only word in the English language that can be the plural of three different singular nouns; ax, axe, and axis), and far too much word-play. I like to take a simpler approach. Seriously. Despite what any regular readers would think, the word “simple” is actually in my vocabulary.
Assuming that anything we deem a human right should be provided by the public, it can be generally safe to say that the amount of things you feel that you and everyone else have a right to is highly indicative of where you would fall on the political spectrum. In order for this to work, though, the business world needs to act as a control group, rather than as any kind of partnership with government. Once you start pumping subsidies into this and that, you create a different dynamic whereby it becomes impossible to know where government ends and business begins. You can’t determine x, y, and z if you smash them all together. For business to achieve their ultimate goal is a complex process, and many have failed. But the goal itself is simple…make money.
Business should use any and all legal means possible to make the most amount of profit possible, ethics be damned. Before conservatives start high-fiving me and liberals start calling me a corporatist or any of several other adjectives, please read on through at least the next sentence. While business should do whatever possible to make the most profit, government has the responsibility to protect the liberty of each of us by enacting and enforcing laws and policies that protect the workers in that business, the consumers of that business, and bystanders within a figurative arms reach of that business. Remember when I said any and all legal means? That was the catch, in case you missed it. Here’s an example: should a company dump toxic waste into freshwater lakes any time they want if it’s legal and saves them money? Absolutely. Should the government make it illegal to do so? Absolutely. We the People, through those we vote in as our representatives, have the power to regulate business to the extent that we desire. Over the business world, we have no power. We the People don’t elect their leadership nor determine their policies. This is how important your vote is, for President and for City Council, because the extent of regulation is decided by that vote. Rather than blame businesses for committing shameful, legal acts to make more money, we need to look inward and realize that only We the People can stop it…not by engaging the business, but by engaging our civic duty.
The standard view of liberals from those that are are not liberals is anti-business, anti-corporation, and anti-people-making-money. That’s the surface level, where many liberals express their anger and frustration with corporate figureheads that treat their employees poorly. We desperately need to go below the surface to better understand where this sentiment originates and why it is misleading. More importantly, we need to understand our current position in this anti-corporate dynamic in order to better explain it to the greater business community. Also, a (hopefully) small demographic of liberals will have to admit that they’re wrong and I’m right about their opinion. That should go well.
My liberal view of business is tied up in an understanding of how to separate the purpose of business in a capitalist society, and the role in government in moderating that purpose. The key word there is separate, and either pronunciation can be accurate depending on context. For starters, let’s consider the view that many feel the left has towards corporate executives. That view is likely composed of hatred of the unethical, money-grubbing nature of the free market capitalist corporation. If this is how you think liberals view the topic…okay, you’re not wrong. Except for the hatred part. The distinction, I would submit, is in saying that those at the top of a corporation being unethical and power-hungry is a bad thing. On the contrary, it is exactly what it should be, so really a liberal view within capitalism should be indifferent.
The #1 goal of any corporation is to make as much money as possible by whatever legal means possible. Frankly, I think many businesses police themselves entirely too much, rendering them unable to compete with those willing to cross as many lines as necessary. You can’t follow a strict ethical code that far exceeds government regulation and expect to compete with Walmart; at best, you might steal a tiny portion of their business in the shrinking demographic that is willing to pay more to avoid shopping at places like Walmart. But they will still dominate the market, and eventually render your services useless.
In such a scenario, small and medium-sized business should be in favor of more regulations in their market, as it typically will serve to even the playing field with the predators at the top. I applaud the businesses that take steps to do the right thing, but I do not expect it, and neither should you. What I expect is that the people I elect to positions in government accept and carry out their responsibility to regulate business so that it does not infringe on my liberties. And my rights to deep-fry anything and everything.
As a matter of example, let’s take a look at a popular liberal punching bag when it comes to paying taxes: General Electric. Back in 2010, it was widely reported that GE had $5.1 billion in profits and a tax liability of…$0. No joke. As we’ve learned from many years of suffering Karl Rove, widely reporting something with great repetition does not, in fact, make it true. Much of this was based on corporate balance sheets paired with statements from GE, not GE’s actual tax filings, but the reality is still that their eventual tax burden was still ridiculously low considering the profits they took in. In addition, GE, like all companies, would have been responsible for paying several other taxes on behalf of their employees outside of general corporate or income tax. Regardless, let’s examine this through the lens of “massive profits, little to no taxes.” The immediate liberal response in past years has been to say that GE is cheating the system by moving money overseas and all the other little tricks and loopholes that led to this atrocity.
Step back for a second, though, and realize that they reached that point by following all of the rules. They broke no laws, and at the end of the day, they produced the maximum profit for their shareholders. If they have resources to do such a thing without breaking the law, how can anyone blame them? If I was a shareholder, I would be upset if they didn’t take advantage of every legal loophole possible. We misdirect our anger towards GE because it’s the simplest means of attack. They are right there, on the surface, doing seemingly evil things in the pursuit of money. But I submit that your anger should not be directed at GE, but towards a government (and I would posit one political party far more than the other) that manufactured a situation that allowed GE to take such advantage of the many loopholes available in order to produce this result. If the teacher tells you the test is open book, would you close your book on principle?
It is our responsibility, as citizens and constituents, to elect government officials that will set fair business laws and properly hold business accountable when those laws are broken. An easy test would be that if the profit earned from an illegal activity is more than the fine imposed and/or the damage of the punishment, we need to take another look at that law and adapt it to modern times. Like many things in life, it comes down to risk/reward. If dumping toxic waste will save a business $1 million, but will cost them a fine of $500k… I mean…duh? It is our responsibility to put a government in place that will enforce laws (with modern punishments), and make sure that the penalty does not just fit the crime, but pushes the risk/reward prospects to such extreme levels that trying to “get away with” something, or outwardly doing something unethical because you know it’s more cost-effective to do it, is practically forbidden.
The idea that conservatives constantly push of “getting government out of the way” and letting business grow and produce is inherently flawed in a free market capitalist society. In such an instance, government stepping aside is not only dangerous for you and me, but also for the business. Many of the protections provided by government are the very reason some businesses are able to convince customers that they are trustworthy. Why is that relevant? Because businesses don’t need to be trustworthy; they need to provide a product or service in exchange for an agreed upon amount of money. And the government should make sure the amount of money is fair, that the product or service is as advertised, and that the money is real and legal tender. That’s it. Separation and the resulting natural checks and balances in a capitalist society are the only way capitalism works for everyone. A pure, unchecked free market would be disastrous to nature, the climate, technological advancement, and anyone making middle class or lower pay. But most importantly, the business world needs to understand why it would be disastrous for the business world.
I sometimes feel like liberals tend to fight the wrong fight, or at least we don’t have a proper understanding of how to differentiate “us” from “them.” Perhaps it’s because of my time as a conservative in my younger days, and my ability to know what conservatives know and anticipate their response. But as liberals, we constantly lose ground in the messaging battle because we aren’t able to clearly articulate any kind of message.
So here’s the message: Business world, despite all you’ve been raised to believe, your business is actually far better off with Democrats. If you don’t believe me, then leave the talking points and the childish nicknames at the door, and let’s start a conversation.