Self-Interest vs. the Commons

January 2013

Late last year Fortune magazine published an article by Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin entitled “How companies can get America’s edge back while advancing their own interests.”While focused on restoring U.S. competitiveness, the authors addressed a notion that American business might be shooting itself in the foot by seeking special treatment.

Jan Rivkin and Michael Porter

Jan Rivkin and Michael Porter

In a paragraph titled “Rein in self-interest” they wrote:

[blockquote]The third way business can and should improve U.S. competitiveness is by stopping self-interested actions that weaken the commons. Many such actions involve government relations and corporate lobbying. When firms seek special permits, tax breaks, or regulatory exceptions, they distort competition and raise regulatory complexity. Each plea seems profitable to the company or industry involved. But taken together, such pleas have created an exception-riddled corporate tax code, a rat’s nest of earmarks and subsidies in the federal budget, and delays in crucial legislation. Self-interested efforts by one company make others feel they must do the same. The overall cost and complexity of doing business rises. More important, in the long run, the resulting public cynicism erodes society’s support for business. Business should advocate policies that improve the U.S. business environment rather than pursue narrow self-interest, which often backfires.[/blockquote]

Here’s a link to the entire article

As I have opined on several occasions, these special treatments tilt the playing field so there is no such thing as a free market anymore. Despite market fundamentalists screaming about hands-off deregulation they lobby and campaign for any advantage they can get from government.

Am I taking solace in a breadcrumb of a notion – that a prominent business periodical would even mention the commons? That a business professor of Porter’s reputation would put forth such an idea? Perhaps I am, but it is a step – the recognition there is a commons that belongs to everyone.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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