JACK SPENCER: Business practices can undermine the free market cause

Arguably, the philosophical fault line in American politics centers on which entity is distrusted and feared most; government or big business. Note that this has nothing to do with either side believing government is wonderful, clever, or even something positive. In a non-combative setting those on the left are as willing to criticize the ineffectiveness, arrogance and stupidity of government bureaucracy as those on the right.

In most elections voters tend to vote against a candidate more so than they vote for the candidate’s opponent. It is the old lesser of two evils dilemma. Not surprisingly, this reflects the larger philosophical contest. At issue is not whether a governmental approach is good or bad; or whether the free market approach is good or bad; in the minds of many voters the question is which is worse.

Any entity that becomes so big and so powerful that it diminishes and discounts individuals has the capacity to become tyrannical. This applies to both governments and large corporations. History shows that the evils of unchecked governmental power are far more dangerous than the machinations of any corporate board room — but for many voters the line seems blurry.

Unfortunately our advanced technological age, with its emphasis on groups rather than individuals, threatens to further obscure the distinctions between government abuses and the abuses of big business. Those on the free market side of the political divide often mistakenly adopt an attitude that those who see government as less of a threat than big business have no grounds for their stance. This is untrue; their grounds may be faulty, but they have grounds nonetheless.

It is said that image is everything. In politics there is a constant struggle over image, as each side attempts to define the image of its opponents. But in the end the image-damaging blows that don’t originate with one’s opponents are the most damning. Overall, those who champion free market policies do a lousy job of recognizing how much their own position suffers from self-inflicted wounds to the image of American business — big business in particular.

Yes, for decades Hollywood has been stereotyping American businesspeople as a greedy, unprincipled, cut-throat, win-at-all-costs segment of society. Undoubtedly many businesspeople have felt frustrated when movies, television, and — to a marginally lesser extent — the mainstream news media, portray them this way.

However, to simply blame a sour image on the unfair characterizations of others is a cop-out. In point of fact, the actions, commentary and posturing of important elements within the nation’s business community often seem to relentlessly reinforce the negative stereotypes.

All one has to do is watch how a significant number of businesses that sell services and products to other businesses represent those services and products in commercials. They’ll give the buyer the ability to bury or dominate their competition, forge ahead of the pack and leave the rest far behind. The underlying message is that it’s a dog-eat-dog world in which anything other than first place is failure. Everyone has to get smarter than the other guy, bigger — always bigger — stronger, faster; get on top and stay on top.

What often seems lost is the perspective that providing a service or product that real people need and want and that makes their lives easier or better is a major part of both the goal of a business and a key part of the definition of being successful. Add to this the perspective that providing jobs that real people need and want and that make their lives better and help them achieve their dreams and potential can be considered a part of the goal and a definition of success as well?

To the majority of those in the world of business providing services, products and jobs for real people is their goal and is a key element in their definition of success. That’s what customers usually discover through their personal interactions with grocers, shopkeepers, checkout cashiers and even the customer service representatives they speak to on the telephone. Taken all together these “relationships” are what provides the positive side of what we might call the face of business in America.

But in the modern world that side of the face of American business is increasingly being eclipsed by the cynical “kick their butts and grab all you can” jargon of certain business entities and the impersonal “we want to avoid human contact” computerization of customer service.

Case in point, when a person who owns a small business knows his or her customer has diligently paid the monthly bill on time for 15 years, they’ll suspect a mistake has been made when a monthly payment doesn’t arrive on time. “Maybe it got stuck in the bottom of a mail bin,” they’ll say. “Let’s wait a couple more days.”

Not so with an automated, computerized system; which treats longtime customers just the same as it does new customers or customers with a histories of frequently missing payments. The threatening notice automatically goes out, and a penalty gets tacked on.

Add to this the downright dishonesty of Internet scams that attempt to trick people into clicking on a box that will cut off access to their emails or other functions, so they’ll have no choice but to purchase spyware or security software from a company that probably intentionally caused the problem in the first place.

In the political battle between the philosophies of free market versus government, those on the free market side need to understand that when businesses treat customers no better than the government does, it can destroy the distinctions they strive to make between government and the free market. Businesses that sell customer lists or attempt to trick and force Internet users into buying software they don’t need undercut and hurt the political cause for which free market proponents are fighting.

It can be argued that dissatisfied individuals are free to switch companies; but can’t switch governments. But that argument comes late in the game and after the image of business in America has already been tarnished. What’s more, it is even less persuasive when alternative companies all tend to treat their customers in the same automated and mechanical manner.

There are no easy solutions to any of these modern business world flaws; and asking government to step in would surely make matters worse. However, pretending these trends don’t impact political perceptions and lose votes election after election is just whistling past the graveyard.

One thing is certain, until business leaders acknowledge to themselves that many common business practices are hurting the image they want to enhance, their uphill political battle will get tougher and tougher.