Note: This is the last of several blog posts reviewing Tyler Cowen’s book “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”
Now that we have reviewed the first eight chapters of Tyler Cowen’s “Love Letter,” it’s time to conclude our extended review with Chapter 9, the last chapter of Professor Cowen’s ode to big business, but before proceeding any further, let me say that Cowen has saved the best for last, for in many ways his concluding chapter is the most intriguing and fascinating chapter in a book full of intriguing and fascinating chapters!
To begin with, Professor Cowen’s concluding chapter poses a paradoxical query: If big business is so great in so many different ways, why do people “hate on” (to use the popular expression) business so much? Although Cowen offers an intriguing conjecture, alas, it is totally wrong! Specifically, Cowen speculates (p. 184, emphasis in the original) that “we anthropomorphize corporations–we imbue them with human qualities,” instead of seeing business firms for what they really are: cold, impersonal, legal abstractions with “a legally binding responsibility” to maximize their profits (p. 197).
I call bullshit (again)! Maybe this is how Professor Cowen himself sees corporations (though I highly doubt it), but I don’t know of a single person who “thinks of corporations as people” (p. 184) or who sees business firms as their “friends” (p. 198). People are not that stupid, and an economist no less should know better. Yes, I will concede that most people are most likely unaware that the managers of a corporation owe a common law “fiduciary duty” to the shareholders, but most people already know that most companies, especially the big business firms that Cowen is writing about in his book, are cold, impersonal, legal abstractions whose main corporate mission is to maximize profits. That’s precisely why “we” hate on big business firms, engage in shoplifting, lie on our resumes, etc.! Because large corporations are seen as cold and impersonal and abstract entities!
In closing, let me end my extended review on a positive note. Tyler Cowen concludes Ch. 9 by asking, what is the social responsibility of business? Is it to just make profits, or is it something more? Professor Cowen’s pithy riposte to this question is (pp. 205-206, emphasis in the original), the social responsibility of business is to come up with new and better conceptions of the social responsibility of business. At a surface level, this response is pretty lame, but at a deeper level, Cowen’s aphorism blew me away. Markets are not limited to products and services. Maybe markets also extend to ethical paradigms and moral doctrines. In addition to providing us a wide array of products and services, perhaps business firms also provide us differing degrees of ethical dogmas and moral menus!
In my view, ethics and morality are not just about choosing between good and bad, right and wrong. After all, often in life we must choose between two or more bads, two or more wrongs! Fundamentally, ethics and morality are about how we treat and interact with other people (and with nonhuman animals), and that is one way of understanding what business firms do. Business firms are an agglomeration of stakeholders, and most of these stakeholders are people: owners, managers, employees, contractors, customers, etc. Moreover, business firms employ a wide variety of methods of treating or interacting with these sundry stakeholders, and these different ways are, at bottom, guided by different visions of ethics and morality …
Professor Cowen (with apologies to DJ Khaled, pictured below), maybe it is time for you to “make” another book!