James Boyd-Wallis: Making the moral case for business

 

You’ve had this conversation before. 

Maybe with friends over supper, your family, or a colleague at work.

You make the case for business and free enterprise more broadly. Companies support 82 per cent of all employment in this country. They provide the taxes that essential public services depend on, you’ll add.

But someone will come back with a more emotive, more moral, response: “All I see is rich getting richer and the poor poorer. Free enterprise doesn’t work when some have so much and others so little”.

And like that, you’ve lost your argument.

Even if you make the case that all ships rise with the tide, your interlocutor has stopped listening.

It’s not that you are wrong. You just hit a wall.

Why does this matter?

While it might be tempting to discard such conversations as one-offs, we mustn’t.

Companies now face a more hostile environment in which to do business than at any time in the last 40 years.

Recent studies show the public perception of private business ranges from indifference to disgust.

“Greedy, selfish, and corrupt”, was the description of free enterprise from one piece of research. All words that suggest immorality.

Across almost every issue — whether regulation or ownership — the public is losing patience with private business.

Businesses are under threat, some terminally so.

We therefore need to act.

But what should we do?

We need to do three things.

First, for too long we haven’t been making the case for business. When we have, it has only been the material case. Quoting stats and measurable benefits. But, as we know from our personal conversations, this is no longer enough.

Instead, we need to be making the moral case for business.

The moral case rests on the idea that it is only with free enterprise that we can match reward to merit.

Private business allows us to decide how to spend our time and talents to shape our lives.

It enables us all to take risks, innovate, and, quite often, make sacrifices to earn our success.

We know the stories of the entrepreneurs who remortgage their house to finance their dream. Who forgo months, sometimes years, of no or low pay to get their idea off the ground. They have earned their success.

What’s more, free enterprise lifts people out of poverty. At home and abroad.

To change minds we need to make the moral case — with facts and figures playing a supporting, rather than a leading, role.

Second, we need our politicians to make a more full-throated defence of free enterprise. As part of this, they also need to argue against renationalising industries.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss, has done an excellent job, here.  FREER’s MP Co-Chairs Lee Rowley and Luke Graham have also both written passionately and persuasively.

But more voices are needed.

Third, and, as important, we need the vast majority of decent, honest, and hardworking businesses and business people to make the moral case as well.

We shouldn’t let a few bad apples demonise business as a whole.

At a recent FREER event to launch her excellent paper on free speech, Kemi Badenoch MP mentioned the need for those who believe in free enterprise to promote the policies they support.

This is important because we, the public, trust our peers more than we trust institutions. We don’t want to listen to elites from organisations we know little.

We instead listen to our family, our friends, and our colleagues.

So we need to mobilise the tens of thousands of small business owners and the millions of people who rely on private business for work and financial security to make the case as well.

Thousands of these entrepreneurs and business owners will be taking risks, facing uncertainty, and meeting challenges. Some will be making huge sacrifices.

To win the moral case, these are the better and more compelling stories we need to share. And we need to tell them in more human ways.

It’s time to make the case for business.

 

James Boyd-Wallis, Director of Fourteen Forty

(Photograph of JB-W by Fergus Burnett: fergusburnett.com)

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