One of my favorite episodes of The Office, the Season 5 finale “Company Picnic,” recently got me thinking about the debates raging between resurgent socialist attitudes and some aspects of the rebuttals.
In the episode, the Scranton branch of the show’s fictional paper company, Dunder Mifflin, attends a company-wide picnic in which they are paired against the corporate headquarters in a volleyball match. Viewers are predisposed to be more sympathetic toward Team Scranton and all the characters we have gotten to know and care about — the episode even features loving couple Jim and Pam learning that they are expectant parents — as they compete against the haughty and detached corporate leadership. Team Corporate even features one-time villain Charles Miner for good measure.
The dynamic of Team Scranton versus Team Corporate got me thinking about the failures both sides make in their arguments over free enterprise. It is commonplace to hear politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) malign the system which is responsible for extraordinary improvement in our quality of life as, in her words, a system where the “most important thing is the concentration of capital and to seek and maximize profit.” Socialist condemnations of the free enterprise system try to paint it as irredeemable and tar its defenders as members of Team Corporate, unconcerned with anything but consumption, money-making, and themselves.
Unfortunately, there appears to be a temptation by some proponents of free enterprise to readily accept the socialist definition. Their caveat is that where socialists decry the free enterprise system as singularly concerned with generating profit through any means necessary, some seek to answer that critique by merely defining socialists’ vices as virtues.
Carl Icahn, the businessman and one-time White House advisor who once famously declared to a biographer “I don’t believe in the word ‘fair,’” is a perfect example of how defenders of free enterprise can do more harm than good. Where the socialist detractors of free enterprise see all of its defenders as Team Corporate, Icahn and adherents of market fundamentalism take them up on the comparison. They just prefer to see Team Corporate’s callousness as good.
Contrary to Icahn’s view of free enterprise as a space for morality-free competition for greater profit and influence, virtuous ideals are central to free enterprise rightly understood. John Mackey, the chief executive officer of Whole Foods, passionately defends the fairness of free enterprise. According to Mackey, free enterprise is “noble because it can elevate our existence, and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity.” His one catch is that these improvements only result from “conscious leaders who are driven by service to the company’s purpose, to all the people the business touches, and to the planet we all share.”
Mackey’s insistence on moral and social responsibility forms the foundation of what makes free enterprise singularly capable of securing the quality of life we currently enjoy. The neglect of such virtues lead to a lonely, hollow version of that life.
New York Times columnist David Brooks warns against the pro-free enterprise side taking up a market fundamentalist defense because taking “the market out of its moral and social context and let[ing] it operate purely by its own rules” leads to the unappealing result of “an atomized collection of individual economic units pursuing self-interest.” Where socialists would prefer a society where the state gets to decide everything from how much you can earn to how many brands of deodorant or sneakers you should be able to choose from, market fundamentalists leave aside the fact that people are not cogs in an economic machine.
By omitting the sources of human flourishing in our relationships and communities, free enterprise proponents leave far more convincing and fulfilling arguments on the table. Instead of arguing over whether Team Corporate is good or bad, we should be more broad in our thinking. We ought to point to Team Scranton as the reason to love free enterprise.
We love Jim, Pam, Dwight, Phyllis, Stanley, and even Michael Scott because we get to see things from their perspective, share in their experiences, and may even see a bit of ourselves in them. We only ever see the bosses at corporate headquarters when a character is in trouble for being unproductive and often see them as stiff, unimaginative, and distant. We recognize there is more to life than consumption and profit creation. While defenders of free enterprise should not dismiss such actions outright, care must be taken in how much they are celebrated.
The intellectual and essayist Irving Kristol, citing Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, once lauded how Smith “point[ed] out how the sum of self-interested economic actions, in themselves nonmoral, resulted in an institution, the market economy, that was moral because it permitted everyone to better his condition even though each participant sought only his own particular good.” In short, the case for free enterprise should not rest entirely on glorifying economic self-interest, but such self-interest is necessary to produce conditions that make human flourishing possible.
Defenders of the system would do well to look at The Office’s Dunder Mifflin-Scranton as a case for free enterprise that rejects the narrow arguments offered by both socialism and market fundamentalism. The employees at the Scranton branch earn their living, rely on each other in the series’ ups and downs, and (spoiler alert!) all go on to have fulfilling lives with even more lucrative careers and loving families at the end of the series. They paint a picture of a vibrant community that goes beyond mere dollars and cents.
It is hard to imagine such an environment would be able to flourish without free enterprise, and that story is the one worth championing.