- Historic Sites
The Businessman And The Government
Corruption, Yesterday and Today
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
At the same time, the Conference Board report and other recent utterances of business leaders make clear that their sense of ethical responsibility has changed subtly over the years, and for the better. The very concept of the social responsibility of corporations dates only from the turn of the century, and perhaps it needs more than three quarters of a century to mature. Compare, for example, Collis P. Huntington a century ago (“It is a man’s duty to go up and bribe the judge”) or Havemeyer a generation later (“I do not care two cents for your ethics”) with William K. Whiteford, then chairman of Gulf Oil, writing in the early 1960’s to an officer of the Bahamas bank that was handling Gulf’s slush fund: ”… The next time I have to make a confidential arrangement to secure political funds, I can put the blame on the Bank should that great institution … fail to protect my anonymity.” Whiteford was presenting the precise truth as if it were a flight of fancy—that is, he was employing that great resource of the modern American businessman treading on thin ice, jocularity. A child, or a businessman, who uses uneasy jokes as a cover is thereby admitting to a sense of guilt; Huntington would never have dreamed of doing that. Or listen to Daniel J. Haughton, former chairman of the Lockheed Corporation, which had paid millions of dollars in bribes in a variety of foreign countries. Testifying before a Senate subcommittee in 1975, Haughton said of such bribery, “I am not arguing that it is a good practice. … I am saying unless everybody plays by the same rules, if you are going to win it is necessary. … In doing business abroad, anyway up to now, you have to take into consideration the customs of the countries and the customers where you are doing business.” The reader will observe that this is almost saying, as Huntington said, that sometimes a person “won’t do right unless he is bribed”—almost, but not quite.
“Businessmen have a different set of delusions from politicians,” John Maynard Keynes advised President Roosevelt in 1937. ”… You could do anything you like with them, if you would treat them not as wolves or tigers, but as domestic animals. ” Or as Dr. Johnson put the matter, “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than making money.” On the whole, domestic animals innocently employed seems an inadequate metaphor for Robert Morris, Nicholas Biddle, Collis P. Huntington, or Daniel Haughton.
Present-day Americans have a widespread and often-noted tendency to idealize the national past. That such a view extends to the ethical conduct of businessmen and legislators is indicated by the shock and disbelief that have greeted the recent revelations of corporate misconduct. Why this tendency to nostalgia should exist is a subject for psychologists and anthropologists; surely it is related to the golden-age myths that are part of the folklore of many cultures, among them those of Greece, India, China, Persia, and Babylonia, and that have a Judeo-Christian counterpart in the story of the lost Eden. However, in the case at hand, myth it is. If we believe that American businessmen and legislators now are less ethical than they used to be, we are wrong; if anything, they are more so. To a quite limited extent, the United States has succeeded in legislating morality.
Are we to conclude, then, that the familiar and cherished American folk hero, the high-minded businessmangentleman of the past, never really existed and is himself a figure of myth? To do so would be rash. The evidence, impressive as it is, deals exclusively with the conduct of big businessmen operating in big cities. The factual annals of the small-scale, small-town businessman are scanty; he is chronicled chiefly in fiction, where he appeared regularly as a person of integrity until Sinclair Lewis with Babbitt made him a figure of fun and William Faulkner with the Snopes family made him a … Snopes. Still cherished even by some modern leftists as a sort of Dead Father, the small businessman as revered gentleman survives as a memory rather than a myth.
As for the big-business bribery revelations, the fact that they follow in a tradition is, I believe, no reason not to be horrified by them. It is, however, reason not to be shocked by them. It is also reason for us to adopt, if we can, a more mature attitude toward a national problem: to be less naively condoning of corruption in good times and less naively condemning in bad; and, perhaps above all, to put in the context of past ethical standards at home the argument that American business bribes abroad are made necessary by low ethical standards among the backward natives.