Currently, anyone can go into business. Sure, to open a business you have to pay fees to various levels of government to incorporate and meet building codes and whatnot. But the people themselves running a business usually don’t have to exhibit any special requirements of craft or character. It’s not like teaching a college class or conducting a medical exam, which require long training and a special degree that certifies you as a member of a profession. As long as you want to make money and have the gumption to get a business started, you can do so. (Whether you succeed or fail is a separate question.)
Business is thus very different than the other professions, such as law, medicine, or academia, which require a long educative and character-building process conducted under the supervision of those who have already mastered the field. People who achieve professional degrees are also socialized to the ethical norms of their professions, which, most importantly, tie that profession to the health of the wider society. Professionals are expected to practice their profession not solely in pursuit of self interest, but also for the public good.
Business as a field is currently not like this; in fact, the successful pursuit of naked self-interest is its highest aspiration. With the emergence of neoliberal economics since the 1970s, “greed is good” infiltrated the ethical thinking of too many of our elites, certainly in business but in many other areas of life too. The worst, most destructive economic theorist of the age, Milton Friedman, wrote in Capitalism and Freedom, “Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.” This is entirely wrong, as we charter businesses to provide goods that society needs, business occurs in a larger social context, and much business activity causes negative effects like pollution and exploitation of workers if unregulated. Business is conducted with, and affects, the wider society, and that society is more important than business is, for that society consists of everyone. Business is merely an instrument to meeting the needs of the members of society: business should serve the requirements of society, not society the requirements of business, and we’ve had that backwards for far too long.
Businessmen therefore have to follow rules too, and they ought to be inculcated to understand those rules and why we have them, and to value them, so that they will mitigate selfish impulses with some measure of self-control and balance acquisitiveness with other values. As Plato argued millennia ago, society can’t run on law enforcement alone; we have to develop people’s internal self-control through education and socialization. That principle applies to business, too: given that our business class is now a veritable army of greedy narcissists, we couldn’t stop them from acts that are ruinous to the public even if we could re-establish and effectively enforce the strong regulations that we need. Digby reminds us of that here in a comparison and contrast of Mitt Romney’s piratical career as a corporate raider with the norms of responsibility that his father George Romney followed.
Businesspeople, especially those who hope to run large companies, should have to go through a long period of education and socialization like other professionals, one that focuses on character-building and inculcates a classical republican ethic of attending to the public good. Only those who are strongly inculcated to attend to the public good should be entrusted with responsibilities in a sphere of human life where the incentives are all toward self-aggrandizement. And they should to repeatedly prove throughout their careers through a re-certification process that they have enough civic virtue to conduct business in accord with the public good.
Furthermore, businesspeople need to learn to respect the standards, norms, purposes, and values of other profession, arts, and sciences too. This history professor makes a great argument to explain why business people make a mess of schools when they are put in charge of them:
As people who have marked their own success in life through the accumulation of income, investments, and property, [businesspeople] find it hard to respect people whose personal satisfaction comes largely from non-material rewards... They look on most teachers and professors with a bemused contempt... American business needs to clean up its own act, not applied its flawed methods to other fields. If we continue on the path we are on, we may well see the American Education system become as corrupt, and unstable as the Global Financial System.
I must admit that, while I respect small business owners who have ties to their communities and focus mainly on meeting people’s needs, I have for a long time felt contempt for our modern business leaders: as someone who has served mu country as a soldier, as someone who has earned a doctoral degree, as someone who works for the good of others as a public servant, why should I respect a mere merchant? Why someone who spends their life accumulating mere money, rather than living a life of creativity, self-development, contribution to society, and the betterment of humanity? If your life's work and purpose is to accumulate material goods, you don't deserve any special respect.
Now, the best solution to the abuses of our business oligarchy is democratic socialism: democratize our companies, put the workers in change through deliberative and representative democracy: the bets check and balance on abusive CEOs is to let the workers vote for them and remove them at will, as well as to flatten hierarchies and put workers directly in control wherever possible. Combine that with pareconomic councils that give communities a direct voice too in how the companies that affect them are run, and a great deal of economic dysfunction would be mitigated. But even then, whatever administrators that workers and community representatives would vote for ought to be well trained and highly ethical administrators, people who think of themselves as professional who have mastered a craft, not adventurers trying to get all they can, no matter who it harms. In the absence of democratic economic structures, such professionalization of business is a must.