Reprinted from the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal
Once upon a time, corporations stuck to business, supplying Americans with goods and services. Alienating potential customers, employees, or investors through politics was bad business. Today, corporations actively advance progressive political causes. Such “woke capitalism” undermines many of the traditional virtues of commerce.
To help oppose this trend, Troy University’s Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy’s Free Enterprise Scholars program will teach future business leaders about the virtues of commerce and the morality of honest profit.
Businesses face progressive pressure from many directions. Employee agitation led Disney to denounce Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay bill and brought about the New York Times’s newsroom meltdowns. Woke employees create a toxic workplace. As R. R. Reno explained in the Wall Street Journal, “I don’t want to hire someone who makes inflammatory accusations at the drop of a hat.”
The roots of what John McWhorter characterizes as “woke religion” lie in Marxist Critical Race Theory, which partitions society into antagonistic oppressor and oppressed classes. On the other hand, business enables cooperation in which people don’t force their values on each other. As Voltaire observed about the London Stock Exchange, “Here Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt.” Montesquieu offered the “doux commerce” thesis, that interaction in markets would reduce people’s natural suspicions of, and antagonism toward, outsiders.
Vivek Ramaswamy suggests that big-business’s embrace of wokeness is largely opportunistic, with CEOs seeking greater discretion and employees trying to seize decision rights. But to our minds at the Johnson Center, this reflects moral confusion over business. As philosopher James Otteson observes, claims that businesses must “give back” betray confusion: “Typically, when someone tells you that you need to give something back, it is because you stole it.” And yet business conducted honorably “is neither morally suspicious nor even morally neutral: it is a positive creator of material and moral value.”
Economic historian Deirdre McCloskey attributes the “Great Enrichment” of the last 200 years to the improved social standing of commerce. Instead of existing beneath the level of civilized persons, “in the eyes of the rest of society, business people acquired a new dignity.” Professor McCloskey’s thesis consequently suggests that a diminished status of business could have enormous consequences.
The extent of wokeness in business—from employees to executives and across many sectors of our economy—indicates a systemic problem. A systemic problem suggests a deficiency in business education. We at the Johnson Center believe that tomorrow’s business leaders should know that an honorable business need not advance social justice to excuse its existence.
The Free Enterprise Scholars program will impart these lessons to students. Our first cohort this year will learn about the virtues and morality of commerce. Our scholars will read and discuss authors like Vivek Ramaswamy and James Otteson and hear lectures on bourgeois dignity and the threat of ESG. In time, we hope to expand to a multi-year curriculum. We envision internships with businesses sharing the principles of honorable commerce. We hope to expose all Sorrell College business majors to the virtues of free enterprise, while retaining an immersive experience for our most promising students. Our Free Enterprise Scholars will be role models of, and spokespersons for, free-market commerce.