In Search of the Elusive Third Way

Be the Solution
By Michael Strong
Foreword by John Mackey


Many supporters of Obamacare regard the bill’s passage as a dual triumph. Not only has Congress had its way with a disinclined American public, but the bill itself is a prime example of the “third way,” the devoutly to be wished for consummation of capitalism and socialism. Thus the celebrations.


For the rest of us it’s simply another opportunity to enjoy again Fr. John Neuhaus’s famous observation regarding those who believe in that particular unicorn:


“The vicissitudes of history have not dissuaded them from their earnest search for a ‘third way’ between socialism and capitalism, namely socialism.”


Oh, Father John, you are sorely missed.


As it happens there is a new movement afoot – nascent to be sure, but important nonetheless – that is also seeking a third way, namely capitalism. Its promoters argue that capitalism is the best way to achieve numerous good ends, including world peace, better health, improved education, the raising of billions out of poverty, a pristine environment, and greater personal happiness.


“So,” you may be asking, “what exactly is new?”


Well, nothing, really, save the overarching political views of those newly espousing these ideas, and the political demographic to whom they are preaching. Specifically, there is growing within the left a new respect for capitalism. And as we all know, there is no zealot like the convert.


Examples are popping up everywhere. For example, here is Lucy Corne castigating “penny-pinching hippies” on BootsnAll, a website devoted to backpacking travelers: “Wake up and smell the incense, hippies: sure, grass-roots travel is all about avoiding multi-nationals in favor of local businesses, but shelling out two or three dollars a day is worse than spending vast chunks of change in five-star hotels – at least that creates employment.”


Indeed, many leftists have seized on these ideas as if they were freshly minted. This is altogether a good thing, because there is nothing that so attracts the liberal mind like a glittering new intellectual fad. Is it really necessary to let them know they have stumbled into an archaeological dig? That would diminish their enthusiasm, and it is their enthusiasm that will make all the difference.


Or that, at least, is the theory underlying the extended essay that is Be the Solution, a new book by Michael Strong and John Mackey. Strong has spent his career successfully reintroducing old ideas into education, while Mackey is the founder and CEO of Whole Foods.


Theirs is just one of a number of recently published books that have the same or similar message, among them Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists; Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World; The Heroic Enterprise: Business and the Common Good; and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning.


In addition to hyperbolic titles, these books share the the notion that profits may provide the best means of solving the world’s ills. As one reviewer put it, “It used to be that people who wanted to solve a social problem – like lack of access to clean water or inadequate housing for the poor – created a charity. Today, many start a company instead.”


The apostasy isn’t entire, with these new cheerleaders for capitalism often retaining their personal identity as liberals. After all, if capitalism is good for the world, it is largely a coincidence that conservatives have long embraced it. Even Milton Friedman, the patron saint of conservative economics, is spared that awful stamp as Strong kindly notes in Be the Solution that Friedman denied he was a conservative.


While Adam Smith is ever present in Be the Solution, the Buddha and the Dalai Lama are also given honored mentions. In keeping with the zeitgeist, Christian philosophy is almost altogether absent, but the Hoover Institution and The Cato Institute show up regularly. They are virtually always relegated to the small type in the footnotes, but wily old Paul Johnson makes multiple appearances within the text itself.


Mackey is to be commended for participating in this work. Several months ago he expressed his displeasure with Obamacare in a column he penned for the Wall Street Journal, describing as a better alternative the medical plan he established for his thousands of employees. You will not be surprised to learn his system gives Whole Foods workers the maximum possible choice in providers, and puts the onus on the individual to make his own health care spending decisions.


Many of Mackey’s customer weren’t happy, and some called for a boycott. So be it, Mackey said.


In his own way, Strong’s background is just as interesting. After high school he attended Harvard for one year, but found it unserious. He transferred to St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM, where he spent the next three years immersed in the Great Books, an undertaking that was much more to his liking.


If you find the title Be the Solution saccharine, you will not care at all for the book’s subtitle: “How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World’s Problems.”


But the issue lies only with our mildly abraded aesthetic sense, and perhaps with that modifier “all.” On the other hand, who among us was entirely comfortable leaving our copy of How to Swim with the Sharks Without Getting Eaten in plain view? I would call this excellent marketing, hitting the bullseye of its intended audience, the folks Strong calls “idealists.”


Idealists is a broad term, and includes most of us, even those of us who don’t wear our hearts on our t-shirts. By idealists, Strong means those on the left; we can also say those who believe all of the world’s problems can be solved.


While Mackey is given equal billing (surely another wise marketing move), Strong is in fact the master of ceremonies and lead architect of this large and wildly ambitious book. One reviewer has suggested skipping everything other than Strong’s words, and if you intend to simply sit down and read it through, novel-like, that isn’t a bad idea. But the book provides a great deal more of value, including an entire library of arguments in favor of its thesis. This includes contributions by Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner for his for-profit micro-lending bank; Hernando de Soto, whose studies of the free market in South America are effecting a revolution there (an anti-socialist one, for a refreshing change); plus some specialists on happiness, including advice on achieving higher consciousness via your job. (You see, great marketing.)


If you want to improve the condition of the world’s people, they each say, there is only one mechanism capable of achieving this, and that is the unleashed power of every entrepreneur in the world. Entrepreneurs are roughly defined as everyone.


Governments will be required to firmly ensure property rights, and to otherwise stay out of the way.


The examples are provided by the dozen, including several glowing write-ups of Wal-Mart’s astounding record of lifting tens of millions of ordinary Chinese citizens out of poverty. The argument is also well and repeatedly made that the establishment of market mechanisms will best secure the health of our natural resources (the “environment” in today’s popular usage). As he does occasionally in this book, on this issue Strong not-so-tenderly treads on leftist nostrums, pointing out that current efforts promoting the “change in consciousness” premise of environmental improvement are “completely unrealistic.”


Many of these ideas aren’t new. But it would be unfair to say Strong is simply re-stating old ideas. He brings to them a notable vigor and erudition — and when those might be insufficient, torrents of data and and anecdotal evidence. Would we had more on the right who could make these points so well.


Perhaps more importantly, he states his various subtheses in language that will not be too jarring to the leftist who is encountering these ideas for the first time. That’s something few conservatives have the patience to do.


It is an altogether earnest piece of work, and nowhere more so than in confronting the issue that has long bedeviled capitalists: is doing good good business?


Milton Friedman, who as you may recall was not a conservative, was fond of quoting Adam Smith on this question: “I have never known much good done by those who profess to trade for the public good.”


Mackey disagrees, saying the healthiest and most profitable businesses arise not out of individual greed, but rather out of a management philosophy that takes into account everyone involved in the free exchange of goods. “Conscious Capitalism,” the catch phrase of the day, is defined as voluntary and fiscally healthful transactions that serve the interests of suppliers, employees, management, the environment and customers. Mackey provides statistics to support this notion, though he primarily relies on his own experience at Whole Foods.


Mackey says his customers are happy to spend the sums necessary to enjoy the benefits of shopping at Whole Foods, which include the cultured aesthetics of the physical plant and the products, and the healthful benefits of “going organic.” Philanthropic causes, like those supported by Whole Foods, are also among his customers’ priorities.


Other, less visibly “idealistic” companies are now discovering the same dynamic. Robert Szafran, a sociology professor at Stephen F. Austin University, recently noted that Home Depot is finding it useful to promote an image of social responsibility as a means of recruiting good hires.


Strong turns to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to explain the growing appeal of marketing that extends beyond matching price to product, noting that once the basic needs are achieved (food, shelter, security) we begin seeking to belong and to be esteemed. Try finding a better description than that for Whole Foods shoppers.


It could be argued that the prices charged at Whole Foods, which range from high to absurd, provide the necessary buffer to ensure everyone, including the largely well-to-do clientele, is happy. But let’s not cavil. I don’t shop at Whole Foods because I regard the expensive effort toward aesthetic satisfaction not worth the money (and perhaps a bit manipulative), and I further believe the increased cost of buying organic food is unnecessary. Organic food is nice, but when you compare the billions of lives that have been saved by chemical fertilizers with the unknown but assuredly minuscule number saved by organic foods, there is just no comparison. Indeed, if you are regularly driving two additional miles to purchase organic foods you have surely tipped the risk management scales against you.


But that’s just me. Somebody’s buying one helluva lot of stuff from Whole Foods, and I say God bless ’em. That’s their business.


The real question regarding “Conscious Capitalism,” in which the goal is largely or wholly to meet the needs of others, is: why bother?


If profits are all that matter, doesn’t it just make sense that you should simply take whatever steps are necessary to increase shareholder value?


Part of the answer is provided above: Mackey says doing good for everyone does good for the bottom line. Nice idea, but history proves differently. Yes, you can earn reasonable, and occasionally fabulous profits by ensuring everyone is served. That’s the whole point of Rotary’s corny and entirely useful Four Way Test.


But raw greed — which is exactly what it sometimes is — has its own impressive history.


Strong counters that conscious capitalism provides additional benefits, including an enhanced level of happiness. As he puts it, you can make money, serve others, and have fun. Who wouldn’t want that?


Strong provides voluminous data on the science of happiness, which is now being studied for the first time as an academic enterprise. Once again, the results are those anticipated: we are happiest when we are fully engaged in what we should be doing, particularly when it provides benefits to ourselves and others.


While noting that the world is richer than ever, and that billions of people now have the means to purchase luxuries that would have made Louis Quatorze weep with envy, Strong also recognizes that levels of happiness have remained largely static, and have perhaps declined.


This, he says, is another of the world’s problems that can be solved through conscious capitalism In the same way their contributions have wrought wonders in the digital world and medical care, entrepreneurs can provide miraculous new tools for creating happiness.


Those who are now rolling their eyes might find interesting John Lamont’s essay in the latest edition of First Things, which he begins by asking an important question: Why are Americans the most church-going people in the world? Lamont says recent research is pointing to a perhaps unexpected answer: “The free market… has permitted religious groups that adopt successful strategies to expand, and to do so at the expense of those groups that fail.”


The established churches of Europe have endured no competitive challenge, and are the duller for it.


Greater freedom for entrepreneurs will in the end improve our education system, our environment, our aesthetic enjoyment, and give us more happy, fulfilling lives.


So, why hasn’t everyone become a conscious capitalist? As Mackey says, most entrepreneurs already are conscious capitalists. Very few find the pot at the end of the rainbow sufficient cause to endure the exquisite difficulties that are required to build a new business. Instead they do it because they seek a challenge, or they receive a profound satisfaction from creating jobs, or because it’s just damn good fun.


In the end, it’s the few well publicized jerks (Strong’s term) that give the rest a bad name.


Once again I’ll point out there is nothing new in that observation. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of having it said by John Mackey. If the idealists who read this book take from it just one lesson, let’s hope it’s that one.

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