The mantra of ‘business knows best’

Mantras are not usually popular in Baptist circles. But there is a mantra accepted by far too many Christians and non-Christians alike, a mantra whose chanted rhythms are becoming more pervasive by the day. It says: ‘Big business knows best,’ and it’s been echoing for decades throughout the western world. A recent amplification came from Tony Blair and it has found something of a devotee – no, a Swami in David Cameron (with side-kick Fakir assistance from Nick Clegg). If (to extend the metaphor), during the years of New Labour, Westminster became something of a flower-power teen’s bedroom of tentative occasional chanting, the Con-Dem government has turned it into an Ashram.

Everywhere, in almost every decision our new government takes, one hears it and variations on it: ‘Big business knows best.’ ‘Profits mean progress.’ ‘The private sector is our salvation.’ Businessmen are appointed to oversee restructuring of public departments and business principles deployed in spending public money. Indeed, big businesses will soon be running much of what used to be publicly owned. The chanting of the mantra has become so loud, so ubiquitous, that ordinarily balanced people, even economic ‘atheists’ seem to have got religion, at least in terms of believing in the mantra.

Even when discussing the war in Afghanistan, NATO last week complained that all the positive stories are missed by a negative media. Examples given on the radio included building projects and economic recovery. So much of the proverbial Kool-aid has been imbibed that we are really willing to see the destruction of homes and infrastructure (with the loss of life that entails) as a positive thing, because it is good for the business of reconstruction.

But let’s not be unfair. Big business does know best about some things. Making a profit, mostly. And if a profit is what you want, the big business world has some pretty good ideas to offer. But most of those ideas involve charging as much as possible for what you provide, cutting jobs or paying people the very minimum you can get away with to cut costs and focusing every decision about quality on whether it will, in the end, make more money.

This is all perfectly respectable within the narrow world of commerce. One would not run a family that way, though. Asking little toddler Jimmy how he has contributed to the family bottom line and regretfully informing him his services will no longer be required is something most parents would prefer to avoid. When a mother becomes pregnant a second time we don’t immediately commiserate because her costs have gone up. The very idea of applying big business principles to the family (at least exclusively) is obviously ridiculous. And yet, there are many in our government who believe that big business knows best for public services and parts of government. Their faith in the infallibility of big business is amazing. After all, the economic crisis was caused by big business, and their network, the markets. The oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico? A business called BP.

The high-priests of this mantra would have us believe that we have to choose between a world in which everything is run by big business or a totalitarian state. This is not true. Many things work better without business and don’t result in us becoming North Korea. The police are not privatised, ambulance and rescue services are not expected to make profits and making the fire department a business would obviously return us to a world where only those with money would receive help when they needed it most. It’s unthinkable in terms of burning houses. But when it comes to the lives of those who rely on public services most, we seem pretty open to it. I wonder if that’s the fault of the mantra, or just because we’re selfish and indifferent to change that is unlikely to threaten ourselves. Either way, as the Beatles eventually lost faith in the Maharishi, a little skepticism might be healthy about now.

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