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.

Additional Resources

“Corporate Wokeness Hurts The Groups It Purports To Help” (AEIR) by Allen Mendhall:

“Troy professor: Students ‘very enthusiastic’ over anti-woke business scholars program” (Yellowhammer News) by Dylan Smith:

Allen Mendenhall on Fox Business—”Ending Wokeism in the Corporate World”:

Is There A Philosophy Of Entrepreneurship? Yes, There Most Certainly Is. It Starts With Ethics.

Mainstream economics today does not believe in ethics, or does not count ethics as a part of its program. Instead, it is based on the concept of “rationality”, asserting that both individual human action and economic policy at the government level are determined by mathematical calculations and valuations of costs and benefits. Specifically, the ends that are pursued can be “maximized” by optimally assigning the available means. The result of this approach is that ethical principles lose relevance as guides to human behavior. They are not optimal. They do not help to maximize the beneficial consequences of human action.

However, mainstream economics is a failure. The mathematical calculations are impossible. The economic process is driven by the innate creative capacity of human beings, constantly discovering new ends and means, giving rise to new flows of knowledge and information, making it impossible to calculate the future consequences of different human actions and/or political decisions. This is precisely why socialism and government intervention and central planning fail.

The entrepreneurial approach to economics does not try to calculate or predict outcomes. It recognizes that social affairs evolve spontaneously as a result of the participation of a very large number of human beings who act in very varied ways in different specific circumstances of time and place. They are guided by ethical principles that act as a sort of “automatic pilot” for behavior and therefore for human freedom.

Entrepreneurship consists of the innate capacity for all human beings to appreciate or discover the opportunities for gain that arise in their surroundings and to act to take advantage of them. Entrepreneurship is the human capacity to continually create and discover new ends and means that have a higher value. The ethical approach is not to redistribute what exists, but to stimulate creative entrepreneurship that is best adapted to the betterment of society. One axiom for such stimulus is that all human beings have a natural right to the fruits of their own entrepreneurial activity.

The market economy arises from this creative entrepreneurial capacity of human beings. In the dynamic creation of new knowledge and new opportunities arising from the interaction of thousands of human beings, it’s impossible to calculate costs and benefits. All human beings need a moral framework of principles to guide them towards the behaviors they should follow in order for there to be social coordination as well as individual betterment. This coordination process is both spontaneous and dynamically efficient. Therefore, justice and effective markets are not two values to be traded-off, but two sides of the same coin. Only justice can lead to efficiency, i.e. social coordination, and what is efficient can not be unjust. Moral principles of behavior and economic efficiency mutually strengthen and support each other.

Consequently, we can conclude that the most just society is the one that most forcefully promotes the entrepreneurial creativity of all the human beings who compose it. To do this, it is indispensable for each human being to be certain that he or she will retain ownership rights to the results of their entrepreneurial activity. Any system that expropriates these rights is immoral.

Mainstream economics disagrees. It focuses on the results of the social process, rather than the moral behaviors and rights of those who participate in it. It is a static analysis – it takes an historical moment in time when goods and services are given and fixed, and focuses solely on the distribution of them. But entrepreneurial impetus means that there is never a static moment in time. Production and distribution are taking place simultaneously, with continuous change.

The only way to impose the static concept of social justice on the dynamic entrepreneurial market is to stop it – to coercively prevent the free practice of entrepreneurship and the creativity and coordination that makes civilization possible. From an ethical point of view, the moral principle that all human beings have a natural right to the results of their own creative entrepreneurial activity is violated. Social justice is essentially immoral.

Free markets driven by entrepreneurship are the only just markets. And it is perfectly compatible for this entrepreneurial creativity and spirit also to be used voluntarily to seek, discover and alleviate any situations of urgent need into which other human beings may have fallen.

Adapted from The Ethics Of Capitalism, Jesus Huerta De Soto, Journal Of Markets And Morality, Fall 1999.