zaterdag 15 augustus 2009


The idea, borrowed from Adam Smith, seemed to be so comfortable. Namely, that if only everybody takes good care of himself, society as a whole will also flourish. And that this is so thanks to the mysterious mechanism of the market – Smiths’ ‘Invisible Hand’ – which warrants the harmony between private and public interests. In other words, do not feel inhibited in your aspiration to self-enrichment because you are fully morally justified, it's almost social work! So let the adrenalin flow, that is being generated by the concern for your private interests.

But, says the French philosopher Jean-Claude Milner, there is no invisible hand and that awareness has been firmly drummed into our heads again by the financial crisis. It showed us clear enough how the hunt for personal gain is not necessarily running harmoniously parallel with the intrests of society. Rather, society was about to collapse for a moment and we still do not know what we will end up with. So, the idea of an easy harmony through the invisible hand is actually a piece of self-deception. If you are honest about it there is something fishy to that source of adrenalin.

But where to get your adrenalin from then?

The Dutch columnist Johan Schaberg recently wondered whether business does not know any other motives for action beyond greed. He notes, based on interviews with other Cor Herkströter (Shell) and Frits Goldschmeding (Randstad), somewhat reassured, that money, options and bonuses with these executives don’t play a significant role as motives. But, he wonders, why do they tell this only at the end of their career? And why did they in their working lives uncritically do what the entire stock market quotated business community does: rely heavily on bonuses?

Schaberg finds more convincing examples of engagement of business with public interests further back in the past. In the thirties a number of left-liberal Rotterdam businessmen united in the Woodbroker House. There they spoke about their own responsibility towards society and they studied leftist ideological models that could bring improvement.

But in the thirties, before the bankruptcy of communism and the problems of the welfare state became apparent, faith in such models was easier to bring up than it is today. Schaberg therefore somewhat sadly notes that this kind of social involvement is hardly around in the current generations. And that this is dangerous because a society does not remain healthy just like that.

So, is there nothing to believe in anymore?
I am afraid that the great ideological narratives lost much of their stimulating power indeed, and to them I reckon the Invisible Hand and the idealism of the thirties. If there is something I believe in, it is that sometimes, now and then, one person is really dedicated to another, and not just in romantic love. Something small indeed, but yet something which can make our ordinary life exciting for a while and which can give color to our work. That creates its own adrenalin. The condition for this to happen is of course that a normal life is possible. Thus, that there are good societal institutions: democracy, good governance and fair justice.

The problem is now, says Milner, that capitalism does not seem to care any longer about those societal institutions. Perhaps because the efforts to carefully maintain them are too prosaic and generate too little adrenalin. The feverish capitalism only wants big shots of adrenalin. It does not bother any longer about the question of where the rules come from. If only there are rules, then the most aggressive will manage to wrench money out of it. According to Milner that’s a really dangerous situaton indeed. He therefore believes that we cannot enough cherish our constitutional achievements. Let us spend our thinking power also on that and not just on earning money.