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Are Big Or Small Businesses Better For America? Don't Ask

Nicole Ciandella over at the Competitive Enterprise Institute challenges President Obama and his Republican opponent's shared preference for discussing small businesses rather than big ones. It's the big businesses, she says, and the businesses that become big, that create new opportunities for workers and consumers. So they deserve more "love" from politicians.

It's true that big businesses don't get enough respect. The creation of a big business is a towering acheivement. And the failure of politicians and voters to give the creators, owners and operators of big businesses the respect they are due is one reason that big businesses such as Google and stellar CEOs like Greg Reyes end up targeted for government abuse. 

But to argue that big businesses should get politicians' attention because they create job opportunities is to miss a fundamental moral point -- and risk encouraging injustice as a result. 

I am not the purpose of your life, nor you of mine. By the same token, potential employees and customers are not a businessman's purpose. He is: his life, his happiness, his profit. To quote Atlas Shrugged Part II:

Judge: You wouldn't want it misunderstood that you work for nothing but your own profit?

Hank Rearden: Indeed, I want it understood clearly. I do not recognize the good of others as the justification for my existence. ...

Hank Rearden on trial

Another Judge: And how does that benefit your fellow man?

 

Rearden: I do not owe you an answer. But I could tell you in 100 ways: thousands of jobs, billions in revenue, fueling our economy, despite your efforts to destroy the very foundation of our existence. And I believe most of my fellow men would say the same, if they had a voice.

I do not owe you an answer. Big-business men -- Hank Rearden's real-life counterparts -- and small-business men are equally entitled to give this response. The moral justification of their work does not lie in the good they do for others, but in what they achieve for themselves. Even when they deal with others, such as by hiring workers, the moral justification of the trade does not lie in its effects on third parties or on society "as a whole," but in each party's free, independent, rational judgment that the deal will contribute to his own life. 

When the moral worth of a business is understood in terms of its value to "society," this risks a variety of injustices. On one hand, it invites politicians and regulators to try to force businesses to pursue some social good the businessmen do not think is in their interests, for example, by lending money to uncreditworthy would-be homeowners. And on the other hand, it invites politicians to subsidize those businesses they think are most valuable, such as banks that are "too big to fail." 

When we recognize that every person is the moral purpose of his or her own life, then we can do justice by upholding individual rights -- including the rights of businessmen, big and small. Then businessmen will be free to produce without special burdens -- and we will know, when we see a big business, that it is big not because of government favors, but because of the heroic achievements of its creators.

For more on Atlas Shrugged Part II and Hank Rearden's trial, watch this video commentary by David Kelley.

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