There are, no doubt, plenty of capitalists who would disagree with me about why we should do business. I’m good with that.
In The People’s Tycoon, Steven Watts spends a fair bit of time discussing Henry Ford’s Five-Dollar Day. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Five-Dollar Day was how Henry Ford described his decision to double the minimum wage of every employee working for him, so that they made at least $5 every day.
I was surprised to learn that it was James Couzens, Henry’s “hard-driving business manager,” who urged Henry to make the change and became his strongest ally after its introduction.
Couzens came into his support of the Five-Dollar Day gradually but once he was convinced he was vocal in his advocacy, with Henry and with the American people. He argued that paying high wages, and being concerned with the personal needs of your employees, was good business. “If you are going to get the best possible service from a wage worker you must remember that he is a man and treat him as a man.”1 He also came to feel strongly that the money being generated by the company was “a trust . . . . a responsibility, and a tough one.”
Not everyone agreed with Ford’s decision. No less an authority than The Wall Street Journal declared that “[t]o inject ten millions into a company’s factory, and to double the minimum wage, without regard to length of service, is to apply Biblical or spiritual principles into a field where they do not belong.”2
As a believer in free markets, the Wall Street Journal‘s response makes no sense to me. As long as the decision is not coerced, it’s absolutely beyond me how any personal religious, moral, or ethical principles could be inappropriate criteria for such a decision in a free market.
Quite the contrary; since the market is the (sometimes imaginary) place where we bargain with other people for the things we want, where we offer them the best reasons and justifications we can, there’s no better place for the introduction of Biblical or spiritual principles.
I talked last week about a statement Jeb Bush made while stumping out here in Utah. He said conservatives will “win when our message is hopeful and optimistic; when we apply conservative principles to help everybody rise up, not just those that have already made it.”
As a conservative millennial and an adherent of free markets, I’m concerned by how many of my peers voice their support for socialism.3 But I’m not surprised by it.
What the Republicans and the big-C Capitalists apparently fail to realize is that not every complaint about conservatism and capitalism is the whining of spoiled kids with a liberal-entitlement mindset. Looking around myself, I have to admit that at least some of the complaints about conservatism and capitalism stem from the real frustration—the inability to effect a meaningful change in their situation—that many people feel.
Having accepted that there is a real issue there, however deep it’s buried, I also have to believe that we should try to fix it if we can.
The argument between the Republicans and the Democrats, the capitalists and the socialists, centers on how to run an economy. It’s an argument that runs deep and hot. And frankly, the capitalists are losing it.
But they’re not losing the argument because capitalism is an inferior system to socialism. Even China, the last real holdout of institutionalized socialism in the modern world, has moved strongly toward open markets.
No, capitalists are not losing because of their views on how to run an economy. They’re losing the argument because of their views about why we should run our economy. I’m a bit surprised that Jeb Bush is the only presidential candidate who seems to have grasped this idea.
This is at the core of my ideas about why we should do business. Conservatives will only start winning again when we start addressing those real concerns that keep driving people to Bernie Sanders and socialism. Capitalists and businessmen will only shake the reputation for overweening greed when our decision-making flatly rejects the possibility of making an extra 0.5% profit at the expense of our employee’s interests.
There’s no need to abandon the free market in order to accomplish what I’m proposing. Socialism won’t work; it doesn’t allow for sufficient personal direction. But capitalism, as an ideal, is too laden with baggage to be an effective vehicle either. What we need is something better than capitalism.
When I figure out what to call it, I’ll let you know.
- Couzens, quoted in “‘ Crazy Ford’ They Called Him, Now He’s to Give Away Millions,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 11, 1914. ↩
- Quoted in “Press Opinions of the For Plan”; Syracuse Journal, Jan. 13, 1914. ↩
- Actually, I consider myself a classic liberal, an adherent of the sort of liberalism that Adam Smith and Milton Friedman espoused. But that takes too long to explain. ↩