Sustainability

‘Nice Guys’ and ‘Jerks’ in Business: Who Will Finish First?

Photo by Marialaura Gionfriddo on Unsplash

Let’s imagine we heard at a convention two CEOs of successful companies presenting their opinions on business; one is a free marketeer, a strict follower of neoliberalism; the other, a socially responsible adept, who seeks to collaborate beyond his role as a businessman. The free marketeer, standing up, says: “Dear colleagues, thanks to my work we have had juicy profits for our shareholders. We have done our duty. I appreciate not pretending to be generous or an idealist or a Marxist! How nice that we are not like those pseudo businessmen of the ‘social economy and sustainable development’! Every quarter we report our profit, and we donate a tenth of everything we earn to charity”. The other CEO, far at the table, listens sitting down and simply says: ‘If we put the common good before our own interests, we will all win. Believe in the incredible and we will do the impossible.’ Who is more successful today? Are both right? Which of the two has more of a future in business? Lastly, which is the ‘nice guy’ and which the ‘jerk’? Who will finish first?

An ideological Iron Curtain separates them. On which side is each one?

There are too many open questions in this long first paragraph. First, the example is exaggerated and crude but not unrealistic for that. Second, there are almost irreconcilable opposites (neoliberalism/communism) but we know that there are various (and innovative) intermediate positions. Third, the subjectivity, bias, cackling and proselytism of the writer is evident. Lastly, when I speak of ‘nice guys’ I mean kind, compassionate, generous, agreeable people, I am not talking of ‘successful for businesses’. And yes, unfortunately when I think of neoliberals, extreme capitalists, mercantilists, communists, Marxists or extreme socialists I only think of ‘jerks’.

It’s always good to start by ordering the concepts so that there are no mistakes. For example, I vouch for what already has been said by Shelby Fortnight in The global CEO of the world’s largest conglomerate says: “Either sustainability or to the spaceships”: I clarify that this letter is not leftist propaganda, nor is it an anti-capitalist letter. But I do want to warn that if the two turbines of capitalism (unbridled consumerism and permanent growth) are not turned off, the consequences for Humanity of the current drive for business will be unmanageable, fearful for men and unsustainable for the planet.

I will do a little more housekeeping to this article to be prepared to receive visitors. But for now let’s begin from the beginning.

The report Our Common Future (1987) of the Brundtland Commission (a bunch of Marxists jerks! — pun intended one) proposed sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Some companies always attentive to the waves, trends and fashions adapted this concept to their work. For this, they created a new role and invited versatile interpreters to accommodate sustainable development into the daily operation. Some did so with the intention of traveling with sincerity and sustaining that new path over time (Patagonia; Interface; Whole Foods and very few others). A majority found a novel shortcut to further maximize profits. A brand-new utilitarian logic plug-in. A bunch of neoliberal ‘jerks’ welcomed it! — pun intended twice.

The report gave a series of indications or guidelines, including promoting actions by industry or sector that would be a coordinated response ‘to pollution and resource degradation that has not been limited and should not be limited to compliance with regulations. It should accept a broad sense of social responsibility and ensure an awareness of environmental considerations at all levels. Towards this end, all industrial enterprises, trade associations, and labour unions should establish company wide or industry-wide policies concerning resource and environmental management, including compliance with the laws and requirements of the country in which they operate.’

There are almost 1 billion pages results on Google with definitions of these key concepts: sustainable development, corporate social responsibility. Too much for my taste. And hundreds of thousands are a disgusting and shameless copy-paste. That’s why I think that what is needed is no more definitions but to go a step back and think about whether it is a fashion for people, social associations, corporations and funds to say that they want ‘a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

When Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was nothing more than a new corporate makeup used by some companies (twenty years ago), I had a very interesting conversation with someone who told me: ‘That’s just a fad. Something temporary. In a few years it will disappear. You think that there are more and more ‘nice guys’ doing business? No, they are ‘jerks’ in disguise!’ The striking thing is that not only did it not disappear, but it mutated in those companies (and grew to new ones) towards sustainability first and then towards impact. So I keep on thinking: What new voguish metamorphoses will this transforming capitalism carry out? Honestly, nobody knows.

Honesty is such a lonely word. Everyone is so untrue, Billy Joel sang in his piano ballad from his album Root Bear Bag (1979). And I don’t want pretty pages that tell me pretty lies, paraphrasing Billy. So, better to get to the heart of the matter. Traditional businessmen will keep on repeating what Milton Friedman declared in a 5-page article in the New York Times magazine (9/13/1970): The social responsibility of business is to increase profits. Point. This is the way, like the overarching Mandalorian creed. Whoever does not like it, there is the door of communism. What is more important for business? To distribute the profits generated ($) among the owners of a company (stockholders) or to share the tangible and intangible value created with the whole society (stakeholders)? Is it the dichotomy between capitalism or communism?

There are many businessmen and entrepreneurs who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

People who preach the doctrine of social responsibility are hiding something: the great virtue of the private company system is precisely that, by maximizing corporate profits, corporate executives contribute much more to well-being rather than spending shareholders’ money on what they as individuals consider a worthwhile activity (Friedman, 1970). Is it really so, dear Milton?

As John Hood expounds in Do Corporations Have Social Responsibilities? (1998): Is the search to always maximize profits contrary to the common good and seeking to serve a value greater than money? With humor and a bit of irony I think that if John had a brother named Robin, he would be a famous outlaw who robs the rich to give to the poor because only maximizing the benefits does not help the common good.

The selfish, that is, those who promote their own survival without caring for others are more successful in maximizing the benefits of their survival. This is ubiquitous in Nature. In the short term they always win. But what about altruism, which also exists in Nature, and the long term? Richard Dawkins’s BBC documentary Nice Guys Finish First (1986) is worth watching. In it he graciously discusses selfishness and the evolution of cooperation, arguing that cooperative behaviors are more conducive to evolution. Cooperative species are quite successful but rare.

Selfish ‘jerks’’ or altruists ‘nice guys’. This is the true Iron Curtain and it is not ideological but ethical and moral. Who will finish first?

*Nice Guys Finish First — Richard Dawkins (1987)

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Pol

Pol

Writer. Pic of abuelo (c.1930)