In a recent conversation with a group of college students, we discussed which historical figures they would most like to have dinner with. This is a question I’ve asked of many young people over the years, and their choices are always a mix of religious, political, news and television personalities. Names like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, St. Paul the Apostle and Winston Churchill are regularly mentioned.
However, one group is always missing from these lists: business leaders. It makes me wonder why business is not seen as a noble calling within American society. Why don’t young people look up to Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Sam Walton, Steve Jobs or other successful business leaders? I suppose this makes a certain kind of sense, given that capitalism has received a bad rap in recent years. In fact, recent polls often show that more young people favor socialism over capitalism today. But I suspect something else is at play. Careers in business are perceived as less noble and somehow only for the greedy.
Young people being idealistic and wanting to make their country and the world a better place is nothing new. But when it comes to jobs in businesses, today’s cultural narrative almost exclusively focuses on the negative: Work-life balance, burnout, mental health concerns, risks at the workplace and record numbers of people quitting their jobs. A new “anti-work” movement even rejects the idea of having a career entirely.
Rather than dwell on the downsides of a business career, we should instead think about what free markets and capitalism have done to improve society and the human condition. Throughout the 20th century, did anyone impact the lives of Americans more directly than companies such as Ford Motor Company, Kraft Foods, Kellogg’s, Apple, Microsoft and Coca-Cola? The last year has brought lifesaving vaccines to combat COVID-19 from companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer. Who has made information or products more available to us than Google or brought a vaster array of goods to our doors than Amazon?
More than 40 years ago, I was moved by remarks from Dean Russell, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Russell believed that if young men and women truly wanted to help society, they should forego careers in the nonprofit sector and government and go into business — whether it be building and selling affordable homes, making better refrigerators at prices consumers want to pay, or doing the same with cars, televisions, and myriad other products. Russell’s theory was that in the business world, both sides of the equation win. Consumers get a better product at lower prices, and the manufacturer earns profits. Society is healthier, wealthier and more satisfied as a result.
An added benefit to this most basic form of capitalism is that profits can be used as the manufacturer thinks best. They can be reinvested in a company, distributed to shareholders or used to advance the many philanthropic needs in the world. Think of the impact the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lilly Endowment and the various Koch Foundations have had on society throughout the United States and the world. The arts, education, medical research, entrepreneurial activities and much more have been funded by significant profits from successful businesses.
Suzanne Clark, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, remarked recently to college students at my organization, The Fund for American Studies, that business is a noble calling. She argued that young people are too often told that they need to be a physician, scientist, community leader or educator if they really want to make a difference or change the world. Nothing is wrong with those professions — in fact, they are noble in and of themselves — but think about what a job creator means to a family, their community and society: food on the table, financial security, access to health care, dignity, self-determination and hope.
Ms. Clark also questioned whether high schools, colleges and universities are failing students by letting them graduate without grasping how free markets and capitalism operate and how they improve society and the human condition. Is this lack of understanding a by-product of dysfunctional education systems? Is this why students don’t see a career in business as a noble pursuit?
Both Russell and Ms. Clark are correct. As young people head home for the holidays to talk with their families and chart their futures, it would do us all well to remember the positives of successful careers in business. Business leaders may not get invited to students’ hypothetical star-studded dinners, but these individual innovators propel our society toward a more prosperous future.
• Roger Ream is the president of The Fund for American Studies, a nonprofit educational organization that works with high school and college students to promote the principles of free-market economics, limited government and honorable leadership.