Monday, April 21, 2008

Business and the Human Order

How can we end poverty and human suffering? We cannot just "eat the rich." There aren’t enough of them.

How can we spread tolerance and peace? We cannot spread them by imposing speech codes, threats and intimidation. That is the very opposite of tolerance.

How can we promote the dignity of every human being over the privileges of a favored few? We cannot promote it by humanizing some more than others.

How can we protect the environment? We cannot protect it by binding our neighbor with chains and seizing his property.

These are among the most important questions in history. But too often, they are answered with well-intentioned political attempts to create a perfect human order. We yearn for a better world, and are easily tempted by a political promise of immediate results. We try to end poverty by taking money from those who earn it, and giving it to those who do not. We try to create tolerance and peace by accusing people of thought crimes. We try to promote human dignity by making some more equal than others. We try to protect the environment by restricting personal freedom and private property. Yet we stumble from one political failure to another.

There are better answers – ideas which emerged in the West just a few hundred years ago. Not Utopian ideas, but inspiring and effective ideas, the ideas of freedom. Ideas which proclaim freedom is a process, not a result. Ideas which proclaim individuals are better qualified to run their lives than bureaucrats; political power is better dispersed than concentrated in the hands of a few; and happiness is an individual pursuit, not a collective one. Ideas which promote individual liberty, free trade, private property rights, and the rule of law. Ideas so powerful that they lifted millions out of poverty, overthrew kings, freed slaves and eroded ancient privilege.

These ideas still animate the world. Today, they are called capitalism. And capitalism is so deeply ingrained in the culture of the West that we often take it for granted.

Taking capitalism for granted, we run the risk of losing it altogether.

The West grew rich believing in freedom. It will grow poor unless we believe again. The task facing us is to reignite wide-spread confidence in a social order based on freedom of the individual.

This task requires coordinated and long-term efforts in four key areas of human action:

• Intellectual – action in the world of ideas.
• Public Policy – action in the world of power.
• Cultural – action in the patterns of everyday life.
• Business – action that creates wealth.

On the intellectual front, there are already some great institutions committed to promoting human freedom – such as the Mont Pelerin Society, the Liberty Fund of Indianapolis, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Institute for Humane Studies. But ideas change the world slowly, like slow currents in the ocean, and we humans are impatient. Today, the intellectual task of promoting freedom is made even more difficult because these institutions labor in a world that harbors the widespread belief that public policy is the immediate solution to every social challenge great and small, from terrorism to telemarketers.

In the public policy world, there are hugely effective bodies such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and the Adam Smith Institute. But politics alone will never change the human order – at least not for very long. Public policy is the easiest thing to do and to undo: it happens with each election. Unless public policy is built around a cultural and intellectual insistence that individuals own themselves, public policy can never be a firm defense of the individual.

In the cultural sphere, organizations such as the Palmer R. Chitister Foundation and the Acton Institute promote a wider understanding of freedom in popular culture, what you might call the patterns of everyday life. These include, especially, entertainment and religion. Individuals such as John Stossel of ABC News bring the issue of personal freedom to the powerful medium of prime time television.

This leaves us only the area of business, the human activity of wealth creation. What is being done to promote confidence among business people in a human order based on freedom? The answer is, surprisingly, not much. Paradoxically, the people who make productive use of human freedom are left to find their own moral justification for their activities, a task made even more difficult by a culture and intellectual environment that overwhelmingly mistrusts businesses and the people who run them.

Not surprisingly, business people rarely hear the message that their business activity is inherently moral, socially beneficial, and economically necessary. With the notable exception of Forbes magazine, there are few institutions dedicated to promoting a principled case for freedom among business people – the wealth creator class. Business schools certainly do not. Business schools primarily license technicians, especially of the financial kind. When schools do talk about business ethics, morality or organizational behavior, it is usually in terms that make business sound more a homeless shelter than a wealth-creating adventure of liberty.

Successful business innovation is rooted in freedom. This is a conclusion so obvious that some of the most successful business people simply take freedom for granted. They mistakenly believe they can safely ignore the hostile ideas of intellectuals, public policy experts, and popular culture and simply concentrate on running their businesses as best they can. We believe this is a strategic mistake.

Some businesses go even further. Having created great wealth, they make well-intentioned, but disastrous philanthropic decisions. They hand over their wealth to individuals and institutions that then use that wealth to attack the integrity, morality and even the right to exist of businesses large and small. Unwittingly, these businesses are major contributors to their most dangerous opponents. We believe this could be fatal.

We created the Bastiat Society, a non-profit 501(c)3 foundation to be an organization of business people who are ready to publicly defend the productivity and morality of capitalism. We are not a chamber of commerce. We are a chamber of capitalists. We take our name from the great European statesman, economist and defender of freedom, Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850). We stand alongside the intellectuals, public policy experts, and cultural leaders who share our commitment to human freedom.

The Bastiat Society’s mission is to accomplish five socially important goals:

1. Defend business people as the most important agents of human material progress. They are the real anti-poverty heroes.
2. Defend the virtuous and moral role that business people serve in market economies. They are ethical leaders.
3. Improve the business community’s appreciation and understanding of the necessity for a large, international, and influential class of intellectuals sympathetic to capitalism. Ideas are capitalism’s main defense.
4. Redirect the philanthropic flow of business-created wealth to institutions that will defend and promote capitalism – rather than work to destroy it.
5. Promote our members’ self-interests, by building an international network of business relationships of the highest quality, integrity and mutual respect. The Society is a place to do first-class business.

The Society accomplishes its mission through monthly meetings, conferences, and the Bastiat Society Awards. The Bastiat Society Awards are given for accomplishments in the areas of Public Policy, Culture, Academics, and Business. These awards honor individuals who, in the course of their professional lives, have distinguished themselves in promoting free market ideas and a greater appreciation of peaceful commercial activity. They are awarded periodically by The Bastiat Society in the United States.

We believe the Bastiat Society fills an important but overlooked market, one where ideas and actions meet. It is a vital meeting point between the thinkers who defend capitalism in words, and the wealth creators who practice capitalism in deeds. Neither group can exist without the other. Our motto, “Those who work in freedom should know how freedom works,” reminds us that business people have a special responsibility in a free world.

We do not claim that business is perfect. Human beings are never perfect. But it would be a terrible tragedy for all mankind if we allowed capitalism’s detractors to focus on its failures, instead of proclaiming its success as the most moral, productive and humane form of social organization in history.

We do not believe in using public policy to grant special favors to business. We believe public policy should defend a free economy and free trade.

We do not want to preserve the status quo. A free and healthy economy must be dynamic. Companies will come and go, also, perhaps even entire industries. Competition is the world’s best economic development policy. The only unacceptable outcome of a free society is the loss of freedom itself.

We do care about environmental issues. We believe that wealth creation is a superior means of improving and protecting the environment, rather than centralized bureaucratic regulation.

The time has come for business people to arm themselves with the ideas that can protect the human progress of the last 300 years. Business people who ignore the force of intellectual ideas, or the power of public policy, or the influence of culture will one day – perhaps soon – wake up to discover their incomes, property and fortunes have been confiscated without mercy and to popular acclaim.

That has happened before. We must not let it happen again.

Yes, business fortunes depend on a renewed confidence in a human order based on freedom. But all humanity depends on business.

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