I would describe myself as having libertarian leanings—I’m not a full-blown libertarian, but I do lean far left on social issues and to the right on economic issues. In general I believe that people should be left alone as much as possible, as long as they don’t harm others. I believe strongly in capitalism. Barring some obvious flaws and a handful of situations where it falls short, it has shown itself to be an outstanding way to efficiently organize large and exceedingly complex societies. Capitalism is a very positive force overall, in my mind.
But that does not mean that I like the mindless pursuit of profit. The pursuit of profit is what makes capitalism work well, and capitalism is a net positive force—but it does not follow that profit in and of itself is a moral good. Profit is a practical necessity for capitalism to continue to function so well. It is not a moral necessity in our lives.
Capitalism paradoxically improves society by having us all work against each other—by having us compete. If there’s no improvement of society from this process—if competitors compete so ruthlessly that they just drag everyone down lower—then we’ve got competition with no positive force to balance it out. It is totally possible for a company, working within the “rules” of capitalism, to directly conflict with the overall “goal” of capitalism. That is, it is possible for a company to act so selfishly and ruthlessly that it makes society, in a very practical way, worse than before. This, in my mind, should be avoided if at all possible.
Too often I have seen the pursuit of profit used to make otherwise immoral acts appear moral—to justify immoral acts. This is inappropriate, and it gives me a burning feeling in the pit of my stomach. Maximizing profit is not one’s only moral responsibility as a citizen in a capitalist society.
Capitalism is cool, in my mind, because it maximizes choice. Any random guy can start a company. If it is a good idea—if he does not lose money (and ideally if he makes some)—then his company will succeed, at least for now. If it’s a new or innovative idea and he is successful, then copy-cats will follow suit, increasing competition and rewarding increased efficiency. That’s good for everyone. The key is that no one is forced to make huge profits. Economic theory says that if the profit of one’s company is lower than the profit one could make investing one’s money elsewhere, then one should close up shop. But that assumes that the person doesn’t intrinsically like what they’re doing—that they’re only doing it for the money. If one likes what one’s doing, if one has a higher goal than just making money, then it makes sense to stay in the game so long as one isn’t losing too much money.
Companies that don’t put profit as their main goal can do some very cool things. There are an increasing number of companies that have a double or triple-bottom-line that they judge success by. This is a very positive trend. Capitalism does not require that we act ruthlessly. Quite the contrary—it gives us the freedom to decide how to act towards competitors and customers. It is perfectly reasonable for compassionate companies to come about and thrive within a capitalist society. Greed is a good motivator, but it need not be the only motivator.
In fact, companies or organizations that have higher goals than profit can do positive deeds in areas that profit-minded organizations would otherwise avoid. When Internet Explorer 6 dominated the market Microsoft largely ceased active development on the browser because there was no competition. The internet stagnated as a result. Mozilla, on the other hand, whose stated goal is to promote choice and innovation on the internet, will continue improving their products even if they were to become the undisputed champion in the browser arena—because they are motivated by something higher than mere profit.
I personally will avoid companies that I perceive to be poor corporate citizens—whose monomaniacal pursuit of profit prevents them from benefitting society. Sony is one such example of a company that I actively avoid, for a handful of reasons and past experiences that should be too obvious to need mention. I also avoid all of the members of the RIAA—I almost exclusively listen to and buy from independent bands that I discover online. Recently, Microsoft tried to scare the open source community by saying that open source software infringed on a number of their patents—but has since failed to reveal exactly which patents are being infringed. Microsoft is playing the role of the bully—a role that it is no stranger to—and trying to intimidate the open source community, a community that has selflessly worked for the betterment of society. This is not being a good corporate citizen, and as a result I am less likely to purchase Microsoft products if given a choice.
Just because we’re living in a capitalist society doesn’t give us the right—much less the moral imperative—to act like jerks. With the rise of open source and other socially-aware companies, maybe the time for the rise of compassionate capitalism is now. Here’s hoping.