Leftist Ethics for MBAs (2010 Jun)

by Barry A. Liebling

Suppose you are just finishing your MBA. You are about to embark on your career, and you are excited about entering the workforce armed with your graduate degree. You are ambitious and want to succeed in business. Your spirits are high and you are determined to act ethically both on and off the job. But what is the standard for being ethical in business? You don’t want to be tricked into supporting a cause that is inconsistent with your core values.

Following last year’s launch, the graduating class of Harvard Business School is again being urged by a coterie of professors, students, and former students to sign the The MBA Oath (see www.MBAoath.org). According to its supporters the oath is supposed to help MBAs “create value responsibly and ethically.” It is written for those “who aim to lead in the interests of the greater good.”

Advocates of the oath are pushing it on MBA’s with the fallacious insinuation that there are only two possibilities. An MBA can embrace the “ethical standards” implied by the pledge and endorse a position which is implicitly leftist, communitarian, and inimical to genuine free market principles. Alternatively, an MBA can decide to ignore the oath and give up on being “ethical” altogether. From the perspective of the oath’s supporters those who do not comply with the pledge can be suspected of being unscrupulous bullies who will lie, cheat, and steal as they steam roll over anybody who stands in their way of grabbing as much wealth for themselves as they can.

Of course there is a moral code based on rational self interest that is both ethical and consistent with the philosophy of free market capitalism. But the architects of the oath are hoping that naive MBA students will fail to discover it.

Is it possible that The MBA Oath is innocuous – really more a resolution to do the right thing than a promise to support leftist politics? Examine the language of the oath and you will see it is a tool designed to further a progressive, collectivist agenda.

A clue to the oath’s antipathy to individualism is its multiple references to society. The MBA pledges to “recognize my role in society” to avoid advancing “at the expense of…society” to refrain from “business practices harmful to society” and to be “accountable…to society.” What type of person is so obsessed with society? Who gets to decide what the “interests of society” are? Surely this has to be done by academic experts who regard individuals as the property of society. They scoff at the “outmoded idea” that people are autonomous human beings with natural rights to pursue their own interests.

The language that is missing from the The MBA Oath is revealing. The terms “capitalism,” “free markets,” “free enterprise,” and “private enterprise” are nowhere to be found. Surely the modern, progressive MBA need not think along those old fashioned lines. Instead it is the business professional’s job to “lead people and manage resources.” What people and whose resources? The enterprise that is run by the MBA might be private, but even better – from the viewpoint of the pledge advocates – are businesses that are commingled with the government working for “the common good.”

Besides promising to refrain from doing “business practices harmful to society” the signer agrees to refrain from “unfair competition.” Note well that in the real world “unfair competition” usually refers to offering exceptionally good deals to your customers – so good that your competitors cannot keep up. For example, if your store sells food, clothing, books, or general merchandise at a much lower price than other stores you may be guilty of “unfair competition.” The “remedy” is for a government agency to step in and make you stop. While this is the antithesis of free trade it is a policy much admired by interventionists.

The signer agrees that future generations should “enjoy a healthy planet” and promises to “create sustainable and inclusive prosperity.” This can be taken two ways. It may mean the innocent and non-controversial maxim that a clean environment is good. But more likely it is an endorsement of radical environmentalism where the path to “saving the planet” is cap and trade accompanied by international governmental command and control of nearly everything.

Are those who are pushing The MBA Oath really endorsing collectivism? You can learn more about their motives by noting the company they keep. At The MBA Oath website the authors boast that they are “partnering with the Aspen Institute and the World Economic Forum” – two organizations that are distinguished for their leftist, private-public-partnership, social justice orientations.

Suppose you are just finishing your MBA and intend to act ethically. Individualism, not communitarianism, is the way to go. Do your best to create value, act honestly, and deal only by mutual consent. Don’t be tricked into signing a pledge that is an attack on the free market.

*** See other entries at AlertMindPublishing.com in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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