Following Derb’s vent, I have to get this one off my chest, however elementary the sentiment: If I hear one more Democrat (and occasional Republican) in the House or Senate condescend to business, I am going to throw up. Today it’s insurance and drug companies, tomorrow it’s oil producers, toy companies, banks, chemical manufacturers, or any number of other enterprises that offer necessary or simply life-enhancing products and services. The preening self-righteousness towards for-profit economic activity is not specific to any particular legislative initiative such as “health care reform,” it is part of the psychological make-up of many politicians and huge swathes of educated professionals, including virtually the entire academic world and non-profit sector, the media, and many high-paid lawyers. It is simply unbearable to hear these sheltered senators and congressmen look down upon people who have had the guts to try to create something that other people want to buy; who have had to figure out intricate supply chains and methods of financing; who have had to organize and motivate their employees; and who take financial risks with no guarantee of reward. For the anti-business mindset, the fact that businessmen need to make a profit in order to continue operating renders them prima facie suspect, if it doesn’t outright undercut any claim that they might have to contribute to the public good.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders recently encapsulated one fallacy regarding for-profit activity prevalent among intellectual elites: “The point of insurance companies is not to provide health care but to make a profit,” he said, as if these were mutually exclusive goals. Sanders complained that for-profit insurance companies are too bureaucratic and, in a flight of fancy that would have seemed like a fringe conceit just a year ago, asserted that they require government to provide efficiency-inducing competition. The hilarious idea that government is less bureaucratic and more efficient than private sector companies will endure even if the seemingly nine-lived public option finally stays dead.
The anti-business mindset often takes a more specific form: it is “corporations” that are the enemy, not, by implication, the corner grocer. Glenn Greenwald, for example, denounces “corporate interests” as part of a defensible critique of government entanglement with business. My guess, however, is that he sees “corporate interests” as a cancer upon the land in general, not just because Washington bailed out some banks. I have always wondered whether, when unwashed NoGlobal protesters and their more presentable soul-mates in government and Hollywood rail against corporations, they are carefully singling out limited liability for criticism and would shut up if all business were organized as partnerships, or if they are simply using “corporation” as a shorthand for all for-profit activity. I tend towards the latter view.
In any case, this knee-jerk contempt for business is worthy of a pampered adolescent who is searching for a cause with which to display his unique moral sensibility. It is not worthy of an adult who should be able to use his imagination, if not actual experience, to appreciate the extraordinary human effort that has gone into creating the delightful tools that we daily take for granted. On my desk sit various humble objects—a tiny clock, a stapler, a paper clip box, a Lucite cook book stand for holding up drafts and other papers while I type. Each object represents a fractal geometry of complexity, composed as it is of parts that themselves require enterprise to manufacture, assemble, and deliver, all born along on waves of energy and infrastructure to which yet another set of entrepreneurs contributed. The fact that all of those distributors and manufacturers tried to make a profit does not detract from the fact that they offered goods which enhance our lives.
Bernie Sanders presumably thinks that he is worth every penny of his $174,000 salary and not one cent less, for he would never do anything as contemptible as make a profit on his Herculean labors in the Senate. The same goes for the tenured faculty in the nation’s most prestigious universities who look down upon corporate profit-takers: each is a bargain at $250,000 a year. Greed is a vice that only affects other people; the beneficiary of a rent-controlled apartment is not being greedy in expecting to pay a below market rent, but merely collecting her due. It’s her landlord who’s avaricious in thinking he might make a market return on his investment.
Legislative grandiosity is the flip side of the disparagement of business. Legislators portray their passage of bills in heroic terms, as if they were personally responsible for keeping society humming along, even though it’s other people who will carry out the actions that the legislators require and without whose daily labors they would have nothing to regulate. Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro exuded magnanimity during a recent House End-of-Year Wrap-Up Session captured on CSPAN, so much so as to result in an unfortunate slip of the tongue,: “This House–we understand, we’re there,” she said. “You can count on us because we believe that it’s our moral responsibility to make sure that you and your family need our help.”
Health insurance companies may not always act as we would wish, especially since we expect them to function not as actual insurance but as automatic deep pockets for ongoing, foreseeable medical consumption. But to interpret their behavior exclusively as a function of the profit motive is absurd when they operate in a market distorted by government mandates on coverage and limits on where and how they can operate, mandates that are only going to become more complex under the new bills. And whether health care is backstopped by insurance companies or the government will not make a huge difference in the looming question of how society as a whole will pay for ever more complex and costly procedures to prolong human existence past its natural shelf life.
Businesses make negligent as well as reckless mistakes, and irrationality takes as large a toll on economic behavior as on other forms of behavior. Some owners and employees are crooks. I know of no evidence that the scoundrel factor is higher in business than in politics or the non-profit sector, however. Government regulation of business is inevitable; externalities like pollution and noise cannot easily be reduced to optimal levels through market exchange. But let regulation be done with trepidation and humility, in recognition of our ignorance of the myriad factors that go into vibrant economic life. Is it too much to hope that even if most elected bodies are immaculately free of anyone who has owned a business, that some small portion of the political class try hard to imagine the difficulty of charting future growth and hiring with no idea what tax levels or regulatory mandates will be in coming years, much less the difficulty of operating under a burdensome regime of existing taxes and regulations?
It is the ingratitude that kills me the most among anti-business types. The materials that furnish a single room in an American home required daring, perseverance, and organizational skill from millions of individuals over generations. I hope they all got filthy rich.