Throughout history, men have been honoured for wisdom, courage, honesty, generosity and nobility, but not for mere possession of money. Early in the 20th century, some sought to construct a brave new world by reversing these traditional values.
One group argued that a lot of warfare, conflict and injustice is caused by emotional behaviour. Inflamed by passions, men do heroic acts against self-interest, causing damage to self and to society. Strengthening the practical and rational forces of selfishness and greed would counterbalance these passions and lead to a more peaceful society. In concrete terms, founders of the European Economic Community felt that strengthening commercial ties between European countries would be a way to prevent the historical pattern of incessant warfare that had prevailed in the past centuries. Another group thought that greed was a powerful force. If strong social inhibitions on pursuit of money were removed, societies would become wealthy. Sufficient wealth would transform the nature of men and societies, creating heaven on earth.
Those who launched this social experiment were perfectly clear that greed was inherently bad, but hoped to harness its power on the limited domain of commerce. The other social institutions of the judiciary, executive, education and family were not supposed to be affected. Their followers did not respect these fine points. The maxim that ‘greed is good’ became the credo of Wall Street. All institutions were infiltrated by greed, as pursuit of wealth became socially acceptable.
The Hippocratic Oath holds doctors to high ideals of service. It is only in the 20th century that it gradually became socially acceptable to enter the profession with the intention of making money from the misery of the sick. Most of my first year fellow students had entered the PhD programme in economics with the intention of helping to solve the pressing economic problems of human beings. Four years of professional training at Stanford washed these sentiments out of us, replacing it with the neutral detachment of scientists solely concerned with discovery of economic laws.
All over the world, leading business schools taught future managers to focus on the bottom line. Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman famously proclaimed that profits is the only business of business. There was a minor scandal at Harvard when game theorists started teaching the theory of ‘self-enforcing contracts’. This theory assumes that people or firms will disregard ethics and violate contracts whenever it is profitable to do so.
Under the influence of such teachings, managers at multinational corporations betrayed communities and employees, initiated and profited from wars, and destroyed forests, rivers, lakes and the biosphere together with many species of animals and plants. Awareness of highly unethical practices of businesses has led to massive increase in distrust of business. The currently popular movement for social responsibility in business is an attempt to restore the damaged image. Unfortunately, there is much more emphasis on the image and little on real social responsibility.
Journalism played an increasingly important role in projecting a noble image to get popular support for pursuit of corporate profits. The Murdoch scandal is a good illustration. Media empire mogul Rupert Murdoch paid a million dollars to cover up criminal activities by journalists in search of hot stories. This led to the collapse of the popular and successful tabloid News of the World and the break-up of a billion dollar newspaper merger that was in the works. Even more disturbing are strong linkages between the military industrial complex and the journalists. David Barstow of The New York Times wrote a stunning exposé of a multimillion-dollar secret campaign by the Bush administration to sell and manage the war on Iraq. The projected imagery of the US working to liberate the Iraqis and free the world from the menace of WMDs was once widely believed. Meanwhile, the real story of vast corporate profits in Iraq and deaths of a million civilians — more than the widely publicised Rwandan massacres — has not received any attention in the mainstream press.
Imagine a Pakistan where generosity is praiseworthy and greed and corruption are not socially acceptable. Such a society can only be created by reversing current trends and focusing on moral education in families and schools. Initiatives in this direction are essential but require independent thought; imported models for development contain no guidance in this dimension.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 5th, 2011.