Many conservatives believe corporate responsibility is a liberal idea. But the roots of corporate responsibility stretch back to ancient, biblical truths.
Not long ago, a libertarian paper asked me to write for it. But after I began by writing about the social responsibility of business, the publisher and editor stopped answering my e-mails.
I understand. As a conservative who agrees with the biblical notion that wealth creators have a responsibility to neighbors and the needy, I've learned that this old notion now strikes many on the right as very progressive, even new age. And I think it illustrates the emerging chasm between true conservatives, who value what humankind has learned over the millenniums, and today's libertarians, who value new and radical ideas that prize self-interest and denigrate all but the narrowest forms of responsibility.
I chalk this up to the current infatuation, among many on the far right, with the ideas of Milton Friedman (for business) and Ayn Rand (for individuals). Dr. Friedman, a Nobel laureate, believed that the only social responsibility of a corporation was to make money for shareholders. Ms. Rand, who wanted to be remembered as the greatest enemy of religion ever, once wrote "it is only in emergency situations [like shipwrecks] that we should volunteer to help strangers." She added we owe them nothing upon reaching shore. But before Mr. Friedman's libertarian business philosophy and Ms. Rand's similar new morality of atomistic individualism became fashionable, other conservatives were writing about social responsibility in a positive way.
Perhaps chief among them was Peter Drucker, legendary management consultant and author, who conservative magazine publisher Steve Forbes once described as having an "uncanny" ability to foresee the future. In his 1993 book entitled "Post-Capitalist Society," Dr. Drucker suggested that social responsibility would replace power as our central organizing principle when we tired of selfish democratic capitalism on the part of politicians and CEOs serving special interests. "There is no one else around in the society of organizations to take care of society itself." But he prudently added: "Yet they must do so responsibly, within the limits of their competence, and without endangering their performance capacity."
That nearly 20-year-old vision may finally be coming true today, though not for traditional moral reasons. Forbes magazine has seemed to favor Friedman over Drucker in recent decades. But its Sept. 26 cover story was entitled: "Social power and the coming corporate revolution. Why employees and customers will be calling the shots." Regarding the social media, which has organized the Occupy Wall Street movement in recent weeks, Forbes told CEOs: "This social might is now moving toward your company. We have entered the age of empowered individuals, who use potent new technologies and harness social media to organize themselves. You'd better get out of their way – or learn to embrace them." It added that all companies will soon become "social enterprises," so, contrary to Friedman, CEOs had better concern themselves with interests beyond their own and that of shareholders.