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Lean on Business Leaders to Defend Markets

One on the main goals of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Advancing Capitalism is for more business leaders to prioritize the defense of the political environment—limited government and a market economy—that makes their own success in business possible. Recently we published an extensive interview with Ariel Corporation CEO Karen Wright, who is the model of a busy corporate leader who still manages to make time for civic and public policy leadership. Her story shows that political and civic engagement isn’t a distraction from the role of a senior manager and executive, but should be considered an integral part of it.

The quest to persuade people who already have extremely busy careers to take on yet another role might seem quixotic, but is actually essential. The path to change doesn’t necessarily—and, in fact, rarely—goes through the offices of the people with the most time on their hands. A friend of mine from the world of volunteerism and community building once gave me some very wise advice when I couldn’t find anyone new to work on a project, telling me, “When you need something done, ask a busy person.” People who have the best track record of working hard and accomplishing things are going to be most effective, whatever the next new challenge is.

Just as important, the act of standing up for the voluntary economy doesn’t need to be an entire second career. People who are in positions of leadership in their companies and industries are already building relationships every day that can be used to present and explain the principles of liberty. As my colleague Fred Smith said in a 2015 speech:

Every successful business sits at the center of an extensive network of win/win cooperative arrangements with the firm’s customers, employees, suppliers and investors. All of those groups are potential allies of the firm in its policy struggles. Some firms have mission statements—if those statements were extended to illustrate more emotively how business advances fairness and stability as well as freedom, it would be a much improved world.

Senior executives are often called on to participate in meetings, events, and social gatherings, and to make public remarks. Talking about low taxes, minimal regulation, property rights, and the rule of law during those events and as part of those responsibilities doesn’t take any extra time, it just takes a leader who decides to incorporate first principles into his daily working life. If your government affairs manager starts talking about seeking a special tax subsidy, you can redirect him to deregulation and equalizing tax treatment across industries and firm types.

This focus on property rights and equal treatment under the law is not just the right thing to do in terms of building a prosperous society, it’s also part of building an ethical business culture. Left-leaning critics of the corporate world have attempted to execute a hostile takeover of the business ethics space via “corporate social responsibility” and “environmental, social and governance” frameworks, but the old school guidelines of hard work, personal responsibility, and honesty still work just fine. Prof. James Otteson of Wake Forest University, for example, in his 2019 book Honorable Business: A Framework for Business in a Just and Humane Society, provides guidelines that respect individual autonomy while expecting individuals in the voluntary economy to fulfill their just responsibilities to those around them.

The business world never existed under the expectation that a firm has no responsibilities to its workers, suppliers, or neighbors, and rejecting modern theories that insist on left-wing social goals doesn’t mean “returning” to some kind of world in which amoral viciousness reigns. Getting the public to understand this, however, will require the men and women of corporate America to widen their professional frame of reference and make the principles of a free society as popular a topic as sales reports and recruiting goals.