As business leaders we are part of the problem. Leading the process of buying and selling goods and services in an ever-growing number of sectors, we may think that we are simply helping to provide for people’s needs. But through those acts of buying and selling, through saying ‘this thing is for sale’, we are part of a system that does much more than that. And more, in this case, is not good.
Up for Grabs
As Michael J Sandel pointed out in his book What Money Can’t Buy, saying that something is for sale implicitly legitimizes its treatment as a commodity, as something that we can legitimately use to make a profit. Deep down inside we all know that a line must be drawn somewhere to stop this. That’s why you can’t buy votes or children or the support of juror number seven at a trial.
Deep down inside we all know that a line must be drawn somewhere to stop this.
We have seen before what happens when the most precious of gifts, human life, comes up for sale. In the era of the Atlantic slave trade millions of people were reduced to commodities – captured, bought and sold for the profit of others. Arising at the terrible intersection of old social divisions and the modern capitalist system, this was not slavery as the Greeks or Romans would have recognized it, where ownership at least placed obligations on the master, where rights and duties, wretchedly imbalanced as they might be, at least cut both ways.
This was humanity for sale. No sense of responsibility. No restraint by integrity. Just lives for gold.
Where Are We Now?
The place where we draw the line has shifted since then. Human lives are not for sale. But the growing power and presence of the markets has put the market method of distribution into every corner of our lives. Education, health, security, everything from how long we live to private information about our lives, it is all subject to that system.
Your life might not be for sale, but every facet of it is. And the fact that we do business in those most precious corners of people’s lives only reinforces that message.
The growing power and presence of the markets has put the market method of distribution into every corner of our lives.
This isn’t to say that businesses can’t be about something more. Whether it’s Innocent Smoothies, Microsoft’s charitable funds, or a local food co-operative, there are ways to make a business about something more. Ways to state, both explicitly and implicitly, that you as a business leader place value on more than just profit and loss. That there are such things as responsibility and integrity. That it’s not just about the money.
Because unless you clearly make such a point than profit and loss, the commodification of our society, is the message that your business will send out.
Unless you clearly make such a point than profit and loss, the commodification of our society, is the message that your business will send out.
If we want to turn this around then we have to start changing the structures that we work within, the laws and the politics that govern business. But in the short term it is up to each of us, as a leader in our own field, to stand up and say ‘this is where I draw the line. This I do not do for money.
‘This is what’s not for sale.’
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