Friday, February 21, 2014

Capitalism with a Human Face - Some Work for Others

"But wouldn't you rather own your own business?

Those future-killing, dream-draining, naïve words represent some of the worst counseling I have heard given to young people in their formative years. Basically, students who have an interest - such as fixing cars or painting houses - are told that their goal is insufficient because they aren't going to be their own boss. So, instead of graduating high school and going to work full time in the area they enjoy, the students are shamed into enrolling in college classes that they have no interest in taking. It's not enough that a kid wants to be a mechanic - he has to get a business degree, so he can own his own shop. And, certainly, there is an argument to be made for inspiring kids to want a bit more. That shop owner will almost certainly make more money - and in some ways, I guess, not "work as hard."

However, this advice ignores some serious realities of the labor market and our economic system. Not everyone can own his own business, or all businesses would fail. There just isn't enough "business." And, so, advisors to young people should realize - and must understand - that the market will decide who rises to management. There are countless quality workers who would, and do, make terrible bosses and businessmen.  David Brooks of the New York Times develops a side of this issue in his discussion of "Capitalism for the Masses." Brooks uses the story - and the philosophy - of American Enterprise Institute president Albert Brooks to argue as he long has that business leaders have a moral responsibility to provide for the people who man their shops and factories.

Not everyone can or should be the boss. However, the foundation of capitalism must be that an individual can earn a decent living by have a valuable skill and working hard. It must not be that to be successful or prosperous or even moderately get by that everyone has to "move up the ladder." We know, or we should, that while the CEO who guides the company and the talented programmer/designer/engineer who create the products are of paramount importance, the people who actually manufacture, sell, deliver, and repair the devices are equally valuable.  The problem, of course, is that Dickensian business leaders have always seen the lower cogs as replaceable and, thus, not at all valued.

And that's a terrible model. 

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