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Wednesday, September 20, 2020

The Common Good

One of the marks of any civilized community is a willingness to work together for the common good: to put the benefit of all above the interests of individuals. At one time, to say this would be to speak the obvious. It is the basis of democracy and the foundation of any society that aspires to be civilized and free from tyranny and injustice.

We’re told that organizations should be “customer centric,” but is this really anything more than the latest piece of manipulative chicanery, aimed at increasing sales in a strongly competitive market?
Today, I’m not so sure that people still understand the vital importance of setting the common good above all other collective goals. In organizations, in particular, it often seems as if the interests of a small clique are preferred to choices that might work more for the collective benefits of everyone involved in the enterprise. Take the people who raped Adelphia and WorldCom, stealing from investors and employees alike, or those who ran Enron as a private machine to accumulate personal wealth. None of these looked to the common good as their objective. We’re told that organizations should be “customer centric,” but is this really anything more than the latest piece of manipulative chicanery, aimed at increasing sales in a strongly competitive market?

Organizations are communities with at least four main groups of participants: those who invest money in them, those who work for them and draw wages and benefits, those who depend on them for their own business success (their suppliers), and those who make the whole enterprise possible by buying the goods or services the organization produces. How many organizations are run for the benefit of this wider community? Some may be, but usually only in the tenuous sense that what all of us need to live is supplied by organizations of one type or another. For the rest, consumers are treated more as prey: people whose gullibility and emotions can be manipulated to make them buy more and more. Employees are treated as regrettable “costs,” whose pay and benefits must be minimized in the cause of reporting ever higher profits. Many large organizations also have an unenviable reputation for trying to manipulate and exploit their suppliers when they can. It seems none of these groups get much attention as “interested parties” in the success of the organization, at least in conventional management thinking.

With “ownership” spread between huge financial institutions, large corporations no longer face any really effective external control.
Shareholders come at the other end of the spectrum. They tend to get too much attention, probably because they provide the money that managers need to start and continue the business. Some theorists see the interests of the shareholders as more important than anything else. Reality suggests that is only a theory. While some shareholders (at least the major financial institutions) come near the front of the line for goodies, the small investor quickly finds that being an “owner” of the corporation confers almost no tangible benefits beyond shrinking dividends. It’s most often the managers of the enterprise who gain the lion’s share of the rewards. With “ownership” spread between huge financial institutions, large corporations no longer face any really effective external control. So long as they make profits for these institutional shareholders, thereby meeting their self-interest, the executives in charge are free to do pretty much as they wish. Labor unions are mostly weak and ineffective, undermined by their own partisan politics and the idea that “professional” employees are individuals (there’s that word again) who do not need to take part in collective bargaining. And while traditional economic theory sees consumers as motivated wholly by individual self-interest, the reality is that increasingly sophisticated means exist to manipulate huge groups of consumers in the self-interest of those who sell to them.

In our individualistic, capitalist society, we have unintentionally handed over many of our freedoms to groups who are driven largely—maybe totally—by self-interest.
Organizations are communities, and they are not so different from most similar human groupings. Those in positions of power are tempted to use their situation mostly to further their own advantage, with little regard for anyone else. In our individualistic, capitalist society, we have unintentionally handed over many of our freedoms to groups who are driven largely—maybe totally—by self-interest.

Somewhere in this nexus of money and politics, we have lost sight of the common good. We do not feel free to act on our beliefs, or hold those to account who twist the laws and institutions of the state to meet their personal interests. With so many individuals and interest groups eager to use laws meant to protect individual freedom to enforce their wishes on everyone else, ordinary, daily decisions are often burdened with the fear of legal consequences. Somehow, all this rampant individualism has restricted the freedom of individuals to work together to understand and strive for the common good.

When people are rushing through life as fast as they can, burdened with stress and anxiety about tomorrow’s smallest tasks, there’s no time or space to consider such long-term, broadly-based concepts as the common good of all. Instead, attention is riveted on purely parochial needs and desires; and if that means limiting benefits to others, so be it.

Our ancestors fought and died to restrict the individualistic, dictatorial powers of kings and nobles in favor of people at large. It would be ironic if we gave back those freedoms—this time to boards of directors and executives whose faces and names we may not even know.

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8 Comments:

John said...

The problem is short-termism, not "self interest".
For corporations, manipulating your customers, mistreating and underpaying your employees and living only for next quarter are not a matter of "self interest", they are a matter of thinking only about today, and never next year or 5 years from now.

The same goes for individuals and communities. If the concern is to only live for today, who cares about the long term consequences of a society driven by material consumption?

But self interest, in a broader sense, is usually fairly harmless as long as those self interested have a long term view. Even a person acting for the common good ultimately does it because they derive some benefit, be it karmic or material. But what we have today is a society increasingly focused on the material and the short term, a truly deadly combination.

Do you think it is capitalism that has caused this short-termism? Our individualistic culture? TV? What?

10:00 AM  
Matt Wilson said...

I really like this essay, but phrases like "individual rights" and "collective good" are so heavy with outside connotations that it's hard to evaluate your point without being reminded of every other argument that involves these words.

12:45 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

That's the trouble with language, Matt. Some phrases pick up meanings and connotations more easily than dogs pick up fleas.

Thanks for your comment. Keep reading, my friend.

1:50 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

John, you keep asking such great questions. Any answer is worth a whole posting, so I'll keep it until then. I also need time to think about your comment in greater depth.

I am not as sanguine about self-interest as you seem to be. Sometimes it is harmless; sometimes very harmful, even to the person themselves — especially if what they think is in their own interest, is not.

I'll get back to you on this. Meanwhile, please keep reading and asking questions like this.

1:55 PM  
Anonymous said...

CC, great post, as usual.

Having worked at IBM and another biggie corp, I'm always witnessing EXACTLY what you've just posted about. The sad truth is that our culture has forced us into this buffet line, and we can only get out what we want while we're in line. Some of us figure out how to jump to another line with more 'options', and some of us like the line we're in. It's just funny how that other line dictates what's in my line. Bad analogy aside, I think our culture has pushed us into this mode of being herded along, and our history seems to back this up. Keep it up!

Dan H.

6:34 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Dan. Glad you enjoyed it. Hope you keep reading.

7:08 AM  
Jason said...

Crumbs. Rarified enlightenment here on the web. I'm delight to find this page.

It's regretable, but we are combatting some very primal behaviours, such as greed and self preservation.

It is to our continued discredit as a species that we have made little progress in controlling these (however natural) characteristics.

In many areas - as you allude to in many of your pieces - we have in fact refined them beyond recogntion. (unfettered capitalism, unregulated 'freemarkets'

Worse still , we now have these destructive traits well-camouflaged and masquerading as virtues.... like 'hard work'....which is increasingly means greed.

The veritable explosion of productivity blogs, preaching efficiency and professional effectives as the only worthwhile goals is testament to this.

5:12 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

I think you are right that these are primal behaviors, well camouflaged, Jason. That's a great peice of insight.

The essence of civilization is the taming and redirecting of such behaviors. That's why so much of today's organizational behavior is uncivilized: it is based on making things like greed and naked self-interest acceptable—like putting clothes on a tiger and saying it only eats people occasionally. Whatever you do with it, it's still a tiger.

Keep reading, my friend.

6:36 AM  

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