Cowen on Big Business and Social Change

I read Tyler Cowen’s excellent 2019 book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero a few months ago, and I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone skeptical of big-ness in corporate America. (For that matter, I heartily recommend it to everyone.) To give just a taste of Cowen’s argument regarding the virtue of big business, below is a quote taken from page 5:

“[T]he world of American business has never been more productive, more tolerant, and more cooperative. It is not just a source of GDP and prosperity; it is a ray of normalcy and predictability in its steady focus on producing what can be profitably sold to customers. Successful businesses grow dynamically, but they also try to create oases of stability and tolerance in which they can perfect their production methods. These oases help to attract and retain talent and make it possible for businesses to offer consumers a steady stream of ‘comfort products.’ Business helps carve out spaces for love, friendship, creativity, and human caring by producing the resources that make our lives not just tolerable but comfortable.

“American big business in particular has led the way toward making America more socially inclusive. McDonald’s, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, and many of the major tech companies, among others, were defining health and other legal benefits from same-sex partners before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. Apple, Pfizer, Microsoft, Deutsche Bank, PayPal, and Marriott, among others, spoke out or protested the North Carolina law that sought to specify which restrooms transgender people had to use; the outcry led to the eventual repeal of that law. This push for tolerance shouldn’t come as any surprise. Big business has lots of customers and relies on the value of brand names. It doesn’t want any group of those customers to feel put out or discriminated against or to have cause for complaint…

“Larger firms, in particular, which you can think of as wildly successful businesses and thus embodiments of the logic of business, tend to be more tolerant of employee personal tastes than smaller firms. A local baker might be reluctant to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, but Sara Lee, which tries to build very broadly based national markets for its products, is happy to sell to all. The bigger companies need to protect their broader reputations and recruit large members of talented workers, including those from minority groups. They can’t survive and grow just by cultivating a few narrow networks of local white men.”