On a recent episode of the show Solvable from Pushkin, a guest interviewed about reality TV said that contestants on reality TV shows are rarely as good or as bad as they appear in the series. The shows present narratives which causes us to think about contestants in an extreme way. We seem to fall into this type of thinking very easily, and I think it shapes the way we think about real world actors outside of reality TV settings. I think the same piece of advice can be applied to big businesses, government, and sports. In particular, and the focus of this post, I think we view big business as being much worse than it truly is.
This is a view that Tyler Cowen puts forward in his book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero. It is also an idea that Steven Pinker shares in The Better Angels of Our Nature. In his book Pinker writes, “though many intellectuals … hold businesspeople in contempt for their selfishness and greed, in fact a free market puts a premium on empathy.” One benefit of global free markets its that customers can chose where they shop. They can spend their money on things that are important to them and they can buy things where they feel respected and supported. We are often critical of big businesses for being uncaring and for having too much power, but big businesses have to listen to political and social trends. They have to try to be responsive to people to provide them with products, services, and narratives that they want.
Pinker continues, “a good businessperson has to keep the customers satisfied or a competitor will woo them away, and the more customers he attracts, the richer he will be.” This is an idea known as doux commerce (gentle commerce), which suggests that free markets and big businesses reduce violence by participating in positive sum games. “If you’re trading favors or surpluses with someone, your trading partner suddenly becomes more valuable to you alive than dead,” writes Pinker.
Businesses encourage us to think about what our customers need, want, and expect. While businesses may be cold, may be greedy, and may have all sorts of problems, they do reduce violence. Many people dislike that big businesses are trying to conform to social pressures today, but the reality is that businesses are always trying to react to the social changes and pressures of the time. Successful businesses empathize with people to win them over. They are not trying to wipe out or alienate any segment of the population, but trying to predict where the market is going and sell to that future market. For all the problems of markets and big businesses, reducing violence is one bright spot. Perhaps big businesses, as Cowen would argue, are not as evil or as bad as we might think they are.