TEXT OF COMMENTARY
KAI RYSSDAL: Beginning today, Marketplace introduces a new commentary series with Charles Handy. Handy founded the London Business School. That was the first business school in the U.K. He’s been a leader in the study of business management for decades. Charles Handy will spend the next few months at Claremont Graduate University’s Drucker school. And during his visit, he’ll be offering Marketplace listeners his impressions of America. Today is his first installment.
CHARLES HANDY: Now that I am sitting where the great Peter Drucker walked and talked, I wonder how he would have reacted to some of the things that bother me. For instance, how would he respond to what I call “Adam Smith’s Great Conundrum?”
Adam Smith, the father of economics, 250 years ago, said: “An investment is by all right-minded people to be commended, because it brings comforts and necessities to the citizenry. But, if continued indefinitely, it will lead to the endless pursuit of unnecessary things.”
Now that I am living for a while in California, I am staggered by the amount of “unnecessary things” that I see in the malls that dot the suburbs. America is no different from anywhere else, of course — just more so.
The conundrum is this: All that stuff creates jobs — making it, promoting it, selling it. It’s literally the stuff of growth. What I’d love to ask Peter Drucker is: How do you grow an economy without the jobs and taxes that these unnecessary things produce?
Drucker saw business as the agent of progress. Its main responsibility, he said, was to come up with new ideas and take them to market. But not just any new ideas, please — only those that bring genuine benefits to the customers, and do not muck up the environment.
The market, unfortunately, does not differentiate between good and bad. If the people want junk, the market will provide. So we have to fall back on the conscience of our business leaders.
Maybe they should all be required to sign the equivalent of the Hippocratic oath that doctors used to be required to swear, including the commitment, “Above all, do no harm.” No, it couldn’t be a legal requirement, just an indication of a cultivated responsibility.
To my question, then, I like to imagine Peter Drucker nodding assent and saying, “Yes, I have always insisted that business exists to serve society, not to muck it up.”
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