191. Allen Mendenhall: Putting Humanness and Ethics Back Into Business Economics
We are living through a particularly bad moment in history for free markets and capitalism. Government, not business, is promoted as the solution to all problems. Young people have never known any other environment, and one of the consequences is the skepticism about capitalism that they learn in school, college, and university. One solution to this problem lies in better business education — shaping how young minds think about business by shedding light on the social and individual benefits of capitalism that might otherwise be deliberately shadowed by misinformation and misdirection.
Allen Mendenhall is leading the way with a new business curriculum at Troy University.
Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights
There are unmerited concerns among young people today about the ethics of capitalism and business.
Business is too often cast as the “bad guy” in the movie of life. Business is portrayed as exploitative and greedy, and businesspeople as self-serving. Historical scandals like Enron and WorldCom are cited as case studies. But this presentation is a caricature; there’s no evidence to support it. Business is the essential component of the capitalist system that has raised standards of living and quality of life all over the globe and especially in the West, where markets are somewhat freer.
Business didn’t have the same bad rap in the past. In the nineteenth century, there was a great celebration of the civilization-advancing commercial republic powered by the protestant work ethic. The image of the businessperson was a positive trope — it was a good role to be a businessperson creating value for others. Businesspeople were the good guys. They innovated, collaborated and served. We’ve lost that imagery.
A lot of the unmerited concern emanates from educational institutions, especially universities.
Who is teaching young Americans to be skeptical about capitalism and business? A large portion of the blame goes to educational institutions, and especially universities. There’s an anti-business and anti-capitalism bias among the teaching profession in higher education that is communicated to students.
In this academic anti-business campaign, there’s a special role for economists, who have dehumanized economics by trying to make it a mathematical science. All their equations and computer models have the effect of taking humanness — the role of subjectivism, individual preference, and individualized emotion — out of economics. They try to reduce human behavior to a predictive data-driven algorithm.
The heritage of economics is humanizing.
The mathematical approach to economics is not the tradition of the Austrian school approach, which embraces a humanizing perspective. Commerce cultivates virtue; the pursuit of honorable profit leads businesses to act with good faith and integrity in joining with partners to produce products and services that are valued and welcomed by customers because they serve their ends in their search for betterment in their lives.
The concept of honorable profit is often alien to students, and requires new learning: that profit is an emergent result of all the detailed interactions of individuals in a market, sending price signals to producers to indicate what society wants them to produce. Profit is a result of these signals indicating that society wants the producers to continue offering their goods and services.
Understanding value is central to understanding the ethics of capitalism.
The emergence of profit is an outcome of the generation of value for customers. Value is central to the ethics of business, and Professor Mendenhall’s new course at Troy University places it squarely in the center. Value is subjectively determined by the customer, and the purpose of business is to help them realize the value they seek with the right products and services responsive to their wants, preferences and goals.
But here’s where the plot twists. The big corporate business community — representing less than 1% of businesses by count but the biggest proportion of GDP by dollar revenues – has been incentivized by Wall Street to pursue shareholder value (goosing stock prices) and stakeholder value (the diversion of value away from customers in favor of non-customer interest groups). Value for customers and even profit now takes a back seat to supposedly serving constituencies such as climate activists, victim groups, and, of course, government. Stakeholder value can act as cover for the CEO who fails to generate profit: they can claim to be focused on socially more important things.
The generation of value for customers, guided by the confirmation signal of profit, is no longer primary — except in Professor Mendenhall’s Troy University curriculum.
The perspective of entrepreneurship can help students appreciate ethical business.
While young people express disdain and distrust for capitalism, they often have a more positive attitude about the concept of entrepreneurship. They realize that entrepreneurs are problem solvers, and that they add value to people’s lives. People benefit from the risks entrepreneurs take and the personal sacrifice they make. Entrepreneurial innovation makes lives better.
Students appreciate this, and can even identify some corporate CEO’s to whom they are willing to grant ethical approval — individuals such as John Mackey or Richard Branson. And many young people see entrepreneurship as aspirational — they want to start their own businesses and make a lot of money (i.e., profit!). Looking at business from an entrepreneurial perspective generates more positive attitudes, and we can show that all businesses started entrepreneurially, and are sustained by their continuing entrepreneurial performance, i.e., profitably delivering value for customers. If there are questions about corporate ethics, they relate to their non-entrepreneurial functions — such as HR (whence a lot of corporate wokeness emanates), legal (the people who write the opaque and deceptive terms and conditions that justify surveillance), finance (directing activities like stock buybacks that divert value from customers), and compliance (keeping corporations closer to government and more distant from markets).
Part of Allen’s approach to his students is to teach the entrepreneurial mindset — not just for business, but for life in general. He calls it “unleashing the inner entrepreneur” and includes what he calls “the economics of your dreams”, the secret of win-win, the creativity of the market, the entrepreneurial principles of career building, starting a profitable business, and character and leadership.
He also covers personal finance skills — developing knowledge of stocks and bonds and mutual funds and other financial instruments, insurance, retirement planning (even at age 18!), investing, spending, and, of course, personal management of student loans. It’s the entrepreneurial approach to life.
We should develop a new value proposition for business schools as humanness schools.
Business schools today are part of the problem. They don’t focus enough on how business can be the catalyst for positive change. They should be committed to solving problems affecting not just business, but humanity as a whole. But reading business school leaders’ and graduates’ speeches and their books demonstrates that they’re not trying to help humanity as a whole but a few selected businesses and a few particular industries. They’re not dedicated to helping ordinary people, as they should be.
Allen’s new curriculum aims to redress that imbalance.
“Corporate Wokeness Hurts The Groups It Purports To Help” (AEIR) by Allen Mendhall: Mises.org/E4B_191_Article1
“Troy professor: Students ‘very enthusiastic’ over anti-woke business scholars program” (Yellowhammer News) by Dylan Smith: Mises.org/E4B_191_Article2
Allen Mendenhall on Fox Business—”Ending Wokeism in the Corporate World”: Mises.org/E4B_191_TV