The leadership thinker Warren Bennis once wrote in the Harvard Business Review that
Joseph Campbell once said, ‘In medieval times, as you approached the city, your eye was taken by the cathedral. Today, it’s the towers of commerce. It’s business, business, business.’ Even when I ask my undergraduate students to name their most admired leaders, after they cite their family members and high school coaches, and after I implore them to name public figures other than the endorsement millionaires like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, lo and behold, some business leaders get a mention. Almost never, though, do they cite any politician—unless, like Lincoln or JFK, he’s safely interred. The students’ responses reflect both Campbell’s observation and one that I consider even more significant: that over the past two decades, the most important and underreported story is how the market trumps politics. To paraphrase Campbell, we’ve become a bottom-line society, and that explains much about our veneration of CEOs like Welch.
Here at the Work Research Foundation we believe in markets. We believe markets to be the best way—no, the only sane way—to structure interactions in economic life. We don’t only believe this because of the historical evidence from the complete failure and ghastly horror of socialism and fascism, but even more because we consider markets to be built into the very design of economic life. Markets as the proper setting for economic interaction, for buying and selling, are in our view a feature of the structure of reality. So we flagrantly support the idea and the reality of a market economy.
But this does not mean we support the idea of a market society—what Warren Bennis calls “a bottom-line society.” Human life is not all about economics. Contrary to rational choice theory, we human beings do not make all of our decisions simply in terms of cost/benefit analyses.
While economic life needs room to flourish, and needs protection from the encroachment of excessive government intrusion, it also needs limits. The sphere of economic life does not only provide businesses with a space for their wealth-generating manufacture of products and provision of services, and labour unions with a space for negotiating fair participation in these activities—it also sets the outer limits for business and labour.
There are many spheres of human life where economic considerations appropriately play a role but do not dictate decision-making. Families, schools and hospitals all have to balance their books—but they don’t exist to balance their books. In each of their cases, love, learning, and care, respectively, trumps the bottom line.
One of the great challenges facing us is cultivating a society in which economic markets can flourish, but without overwhelming other spheres of human life.