For a long time the dominant discourse about world history in Economics and Business has been a tale of “government vs. business”.
In this tale history is a series of instances where governments have tried to control markets but ended up making a mess of things and it was up to groups of plucky business people to ride in on chariots made of money and save the day.
One need only glance over the “politics” section of many international newspapers to see that this discourse is alive and well in the 21st century.
Which is a real shame, because this story is utter bullshit.
It is not, however, complete bullshit.
Let me explain. It is actually true that history is littered with failed attempts by governments that tried to control economies and failed in spectacular fashion. Follow that link. It turns out that the worst disaster in human history was a direct result of an attempt to control an economy.
Smaller, but no less relevant, are the examples of governments over-legislating a particular market (banking is a common one) and thus causing that market to stagnate, because innovators aren’t allowed to do anything. Typically when the controls are eased business people do swarm in to take advantage and, often, everyone benefits.
Furthermore, many of the things that make “modern” life worth living are a result of businesses doing their best to maximise profits. Medicines, agriculture, communication technology, the growth of the Internet and many other important developments would not have happened if not for business.
This is the truth, and pretending that it isn’t true won’t help anyone.
The other side of the story is just as devastating.
Because history is also full of examples of business people committing atrocities in the name of easy profit. The Ludlow Massacre, for example, was a case where striking coal miners were machine gunned by army thugs paid off by the mine owners. In fact any overview of the battle for workers rights can’t help but notice how often ordinary people were murdered for wanting to be treated as people.
And it’s still going on. Shell arranged for the murder of human rights activists in Nigeria. Trafigura dumped poison in the Ivory Coast and put as many as 100 000 people in the hospital. Pfizer performed an unsafe drug trial that killed 10 children and crippled dozens more!
And don’t even get me started on the financial crisis…
So please don’t tell me that all is rosey in the business world.
Now, in my experience when these facts are pointed out to those business people and economists who hold firm to the “business vs government” paradigm they tend to get a very uncomfortable expression on their face, and then change the subject.
Because when your entire world view is under assault by facts that are obviously true the ensuing cognitive dissonance can be quite painful.
I have only ever heard one comeback to pointing out the evil that businesspeople do and it goes like this: “Yes, but governments have done things that are even worse!”
This is of course true, but it doesn’t deal with my challenge for one, simple reason: that statement doesn’t contradict me, in fact it proves me right.
Think about this for a second: who is missing in the “business vs government” discourse? What important group has been left out?
The answer may be surprising to you: people.
The “business vs. government” discourse tries to portray all of human history as a battle between these two groups but it misses two points.
1) The vast majority of humanity is not, and has never been, in any position to significantly influence either business or government (popular uprisings like the kind that put Hugo Chavez back into power are a rare exception).
2) The number of times in which business and government have battled over control is massively outweighed by the number of times they have both collaborated against the people.
These self-evident truths are not mentioned in the business press because they have all swallowed the false discourse, and feel they have to side with either government or business. Or if they are “unbiased” they will try to show the benefits of both, while completely ignoring the overwhelming majority of the human race.
But if you take a step back and think about those two points you will realise that history is not a tale of “business vs. government”. It is a tale of “business and government vs the people”.
Or to put it more clearly:
History is the tale of how those with power have tried to control those without power.
Yes, politicians restrict markets to benefit themselves. Yes too, business people exploit others for the same naked greed.
But that isn’t the point.
The point is this:
Power, unrestrained, leads to tragedy.
Whether that power is in the hands of businessmen or government is utterly irrelevant.
[Standard Disclaimer: this post was entirely my own opinion and was not paid for in any way, directly or otherwise, by anyone or anything that stands to gain in any way from the ideas expressed herein.]