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While captains of industry are seldom poetic, they have occasionally produced profound statements on the subject of their trade. My favorite is Calvin Coolidge’s aphorism, “the man who builds a factory builds a temple”. More than just a beautiful statement of reverence for commerce, it sums up a wonderfully American attitude toward the proper application of business.
Indeed, the business of business is business. But that does not mean a business should unconcerned with outcomes or the world around it. It is evident that business concerns form an integral part of every aspect of human interaction.
And there is almost invariably more than a mere material desire involved in the building of a business. Each time a new business is created it is a laying of foundations for a new temple. While they may not be gilded in the splendor of the titans of Wall Street, they share the same demiurgic significance, the effort to leave a permanent mark upon the world, not through force or imposition of will, but through the creation of a productive enterprise. The conduct of honest business represents the ultimate triumph of human reason and dignity over the barbarism of animal instinct. It demonstrates a respect between individuals, and an adherence to a higher order of justice than that of the sword.
Still, business, particularly big business, is accused of abuses of good faith and of promoting conflict. Activists recount the evils of business, citing examples like Enron and British Petroleum as abusers of privileged positions and of the public trust. The role of business in society is to do business, to provide productive development. The risk is when business is subverted to violence, be it political, economic, or physical. That is not business doing business; that is the adoption of the methods of force and coercion that free commerce decries.
There is a need to reflect on the special place of businessmen. After all, all businessmen are also citizens with the attendant responsibilities of citizenship. There is a need to differentiate between the responsibilities and values of businessmen in their jobs and those of businessmen to society. In truth, business performs its greatest boon to society by going about its own business, contributing both material value and a valuable example of the power of peaceful interaction.
This does not excuse citizens who are also businessmen from their responsibilities. In fact, they must be all the more aware of their competing responsibilities.