Share

While I was earning my doctorate from Purdue University, I developed the habit of making periodic trips to the campus bookstores, just to see what volumes scholars thought it important for their students to read. As a hobby, this is not quite as geeky as it sounds. Well okay, it is as geeky as it sounds, but it was informative nevertheless. I certainly wouldn’t have discovered interesting subdisciplines, such as medical sociology and industrial organization economics, by visiting the local Barnes & Noble.

On one of these visits, I found myself browsing the section reserved for the English Department. Under American Lit, I noticed a copy of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906). The Jungle tells the story of a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus, and his family, as they are exploited by the Chicago meatpacking industry and other American businesses. This moved me to read The Jungle, which is something of a classic, and that in turn gave me another idea. I wanted to learn more about how business is represented in American literature. I had already read Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of Salesman, and so I quickly added Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925).

I was four books into my little quest and I had already identified a pattern. Every single one of them had something derogatory to say about the world of commerce. In The Jungle, Jurgis’ job is to prepare disgusting pre-packaged meat, while his wife is forced into prostitution and his son drowns in a muddy Chicago street. The protagonist of Death of Salesman, Willy Loman, is mercilessly fired from his job. Then, believing that his life is worth less than his insurance policy, he commits suicide. George F. Babbitt is a sanctimonious philistine, who desperately wishes for something better in life but is too ignorant to find it. He was relatively lucky. Poor Jay Gatsby was murdered in a swimming pool, his death engineered by the wealthy philanderer, Tom Buchanan. The Great Gatsby ends with Buchanan and his wife Daisy departing happily for a family vacation in Europe.

As I continued to read, I found that the generally negative outlook toward commerce goes well beyond the aforementioned novels. In American literature, businesspeople evict families from their homes (The Grapes of Wrath), cheat employees out of their salaries (North Dallas 40), leave homeless migrants wandering through rural California (Of Mice and Men), and kill most of their shipmates in the vain pursuit of white whales (Moby Dick). Okay, let’s leave Herman Melville out of this. Even so, it seems clear that American writers of fiction have little sympathy toward their nation’s economic model or, for that matter, toward their neighbors’ chosen occupations.

I am not the first to notice this trend. Writing in National Affairs, Algis Valiunas made similar points in a 2011 article. Valiunas observed that “Among out intellectuals especially, the business world has been the subject of many brutal caricatures, portraying corporations … and the people who run them, as heartless, soulless agents of greed” (p. 162). Another treatment of this issue can be found in Dr. Deirdre McCloskey’s 2007 book, Bourgeois Virtues. Professor McCloskey argues that after the European upheavals of 1848, the literati (or what she calls the “clerisy”) turned on capitalism and never came back.

Professor McCloskey is not wrong, but I would argue that anti-business sentiments predate even the 1840s. They may even antedate the industrial revolution. In the third edition of Basic Economics, Dr. Thomas Sowell tells us this story from his days as a college professor: “When I taught economics, I used to offer to give an A to any student who could find even a single favorable reference to businessmen in The Wealth of Nations. None ever did.” As Dr. Sowell relates, The Wealth of Nations was “scathingly critical” of businesspeople who, to Smith’s thinking, selfishly organized to defraud the public or lobbied government for unfair laws that benefited themselves. Alas, even the father of capitalism had something disparaging to say about business.

To better understand these matters, let’s look at things from the perspective of the author. When authors use a fictional character to represent an institution they are seeking to describe or explore something that they believe is important – perhaps even fundamental – about that set of activities. In this regard, most human endeavors can be bad or good. To illustrate, consider the warrior in fantasy fiction. He or she (usually he) can be a villain (Prince Gaynor the Damned in Michael Moorcock’s Corum series), a hero (Aragorn in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings), or an anti-hero (Conan the Barbarian in Robert E. Howard’s work). The key to each representation is that warriors have a set of skills. The character becomes a hero or a villain, based on the endeavors to which he or she is committed. On the one hand, the individual who harms the innocent in order to achieve power is the villain we disdain. On the other hand, the individual who sacrifices personal comfort in order to achieve something of value is the character whom we admire. In this regard, the hero in fiction is typically animated by some purpose beyond her or himself. In general, the hero is concerned with the well-being of other people, acts with regard to moral principle (e.g., justice, freedom, etc.), or both. The character who acts without regard for others and/or without any concern for moral principles is the villain. Villains knowingly inflict or allow harm.

This analysis raises a question – Why isn’t the fictional depiction of commercial activities more akin to the fictional depiction of warriors? In our novels, we would anticipate that some businesspeople would be good and some would be bad, depending upon the cause to which they are committed. That’s the problem. To many observers, it seems that the animating purpose of business is economic success. Business, that is, often appears to be about profit and little else. Let me turn to Adam Smith to illustrate this idea for us:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses [chooses] to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow citizens.” (Wealth of Nations, Book I, chap. 2, p. 13)

Notice that Smith does not deny that business creates good things for society. Wealth of Nations affirms this. Rather, Smith is arguing that businesspeople are not choosing between things that are morally good or morally bad. He doubts that there is a higher purpose in their reckoning, at least not in the sense that we were discussing above. Instead, Smith’s businesspeople are simply seeking profit for themselves; the larger good that emerges is incidental. In Smith’s model of the “invisible hand,” economic growth results from the interplay of self-serving motives. Among capitalism defenders, Smith does not seem to be alone in his outlook. In Bourgeois Virtues, Dr. Deirdre McCloskey, agrees that this view of commerce is not limited to the literati. She argues that even professional economists have sometimes written as if all that mattered in business was the self-interested pursuit of wealth. (Though as we shall soon see, Dr. McCloskey does not share this perspective.)

Earning money does not make business an unethical activity, as Walter Miller and Upton Sinclair would seem to have it. However, if Smith’s contention is correct, then commerce is somewhat amoral, in the sense that his businesspeople are not concerned with affirming an ethical virtue, helping other people, and so forth.

This is a subtle point, so let me tread carefully. Smith’s point was not that those people who engaged in business were inherently selfish individuals. Surely, he must have recognized the tremendous generosity and benevolence that many titans of industry showed (and still show) to their communities and to the world. Rather, his point was that altruistic generosity, per se, is not the objective to which business as an institution is committed. To Smith’s thinking, business was about earning money. Selfless generosity is no doubt a personal virtue held by many individuals who engage in commerce, but it is not the ultimate goal of their commercial activities. The same can be said for other virtues.

This is why we see so few heroic business leaders in fiction. It is difficult to pull this off, if one happens to accept business as an endeavor devoted to acquiring wealth. It is a simple matter to present physicians favorably, because the goal of their occupation is to heal. Teachers are in a similar situation, as their goal is to educate. Something similar can be said for parents, police, fire fighters, and clergy. When enacted properly each of these occupations has one or more virtues built into it (love, courage, courage again, and faith, respectively). But if Smith is correct, then the businessperson represents a thornier case. If their goal is to make money for themselves, then it is difficult to find much that is particularly virtuous. Why should the reader find such a character interesting, much less heroic?

The problem is not that fictional businesspeople are fundamentally committed to unrelenting evil. It is not what business has that has produced this sad state of affairs, but rather what business seems to lack. For Smith, commercial activities are not intentionally oriented toward doing good things, beyond turning a healthy profit. This puts the writer in a difficult situation. The fictional businessperson can be rotten (if seeking money through illegitimate means) or neutral (if seeking money legitimately), but they aren’t heroic unless they go beyond their exclusive focus on profit-seeking. To switch from American to English literature, recall the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. At the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge was redeemed because he learned that there was more to life than money. A life in commerce is fine insofar as it goes, but according to Charles Dickens it doesn’t go far enough.

This is why there are many disparaging presentations of commerce in American literature. If one happens to share the views of Adam Smith, then the novelist simply doesn’t have a whole lot of material with which to work. The businessperson can certainly be nasty, if they cheat or commit harm to gain their wealth, but even when their money earned legitimately is not for the purpose of advancing the welfare of people or upholding ethical principles. To be sure, it’s not a wicked thing to do; it will likely bring about some good, but those benefits are unintentional. To the extent that the goal of business is making money and nothing else, then business will inevitably be viewed by novelists as somewhat less than heroic.

But there is a lingering question, and we need to answer it before we can draw firm conclusions. As it happens, there is a second literature on businesspeople, and this one presents the commercial life in a more nuanced and balanced fashion. A number of scholars have written thorough biographies of actual business leaders. It is not rare for these non-fiction writers to find much that is admirable. To list just a few examples, there is Frederick Lewis Allen’s The Great Pierpont Morgan (1949), Ron Chernow’s Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1998), Maury Klein’s The Life and Legend of Jay Gould (1986), Charles Morris’s The Tycoons (2005), and Richard Tedlow’s Giants of Enterprise (2001). In the preface to his Carnegie (2002), Peter Krass says of the eponymous protagonist of his book: “Not until I visited Scotland … did I begin to fully appreciate what Carnegie achieved. Both purposefully and unwittingly he planted seeks for civilization. While trampling asunder thousands of workingmen, he ultimately uplifted missions of people in the future.” Krass is too talented an author to write a hagiography. In his telling, Andrew Carnegie is nothing close to perfect. However, Krass also acknowledges that Carnegie possessed worthwhile qualities and genuine accomplishments, and these deserve our respect.

It appears that nonfiction authors frequently find worthwhile qualities in businesspeople. Whatever these attributes may be, they are being overlooked by many of our novelists and more than a few of our scholars. To see if we can identify them for ourselves, let’s return to Professor McCloskey and Bourgeois Virtues. Dr. McCloskey would probably agree with most of the points we have made here. Specifically, she concedes that both the clerisy and some economists treat business as limited to self-interested money-making. However, the fact that a lot of people believe something does not make it true. Bourgeois Virtues argues that this position is simply incorrect. Using economic history as a guide, she discusses commerce in terms of seven classical virtues: love, faith, hope, courage, temperance, prudence, and justice.

Dr. McCloskey maintains that commercial activities can be quite virtuous. She goes further, suggesting that capitalism actually requires virtue. To illustrate this sort of thinking, consider the dynamic entrepreneur, so much admired in American culture. Surely, no one would argue that these individuals lack the virtues of hope and courage. Optimism and risk-taking are fundamental to their innovative success. Let’s take a different example. Readers of this column are probably already convinced of the importance of justice. When people are treated fairly, they respond with more productive behavior and greater commitment. Such things contribute positively to economic success. Even earning money is not to be automatically disparaged on moral grounds. Rather, Dr. McCloskey argues convincingly profit-making can be a manifestation of the virtue of prudence. None of this is to say that all businesspeople are commercial saints. However, writers commit their own sin of omission when they fail to acknowledge both sides.

To better understand this point, we can review a controversial book, which is popular among young people. Consider Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel, The Fountainhead. The Fountainhead tells the story of the individualistic architect, Howard Roark (partially inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright). Roark wishes to pioneer his own new design style, but for much of the book he is consistently thwarted by professional conventionalism (such as when he briefly works for the firm of Francon & Heyer) and political collectivism (the primary villain is Ellsworth Monkton Toohey, influenced somewhat by the real-life Harold Laski). In the end, Roark triumphs and establishes a successful architectural career. The Fountainhead does not depict Roark as primarily motivated by money. For example, at one point in the book he finds himself unable to design a bank according to his specifications. Roark leaves the business altogether and becomes a quarryman, rather than “sell out” his ideas. At another point, the wealthy businessman, Gail Wynand, attempts to bribe Roark into abandoning his artistic style. Roark finds this request so absurd that he dismisses it with a joke.

In The Fountainhead, Roark has a counterpart. This is his former roommate, Peter Keating. Keating is not completely devoid of talent, but he focuses his career on pursuing status and acquiring wealth, rather than on architectural creation. These goals ultimately spoil both his personal and professional life. From the point of view of literary criticism, Keating is a fascinating character. He is the sort of money-oriented boor worthy of a Sinclair Lewis novel. Peter Keating shares more than a little in common with Willy Loman. From the Peter Keating character, we learn that Rand is not a blind apologist for business. She recognizes and even reproduces the sort of shallow figure that one might expect in other American novels. Despite this, Rand does not conclude that Keating is the only type of businessperson that exists. Roark presents the reader with an alternative. The Fountainhead is not to everyone’s taste. It’s not one of my favorites. Still, the fact that the novel could be written, and even more that it could sell six and half million copies, suggests that it is possible for novelists to present businesspeople in a meaningfully favorable light.

American writers tend to depict commerce negatively, because they view it through the lens of money-making. However, we learned from Dr. McCloskey that this is only one way to look at business. There are alternative perspectives but to understand them we must first appreciate the virtues inherent in a life of commerce. Bourgeois Virtues demonstrates that businesspeople, at least the best of them, are devoted to something more than financial gain. This is a story worth telling. Perhaps in the future we will hear more of it.

Share