A brief but wide-ranging book of thoughts on the nature of business.
In 1993, author Veblen (The Way of Business, 2011) assembled a group of businessmen—The Superior Business Firm Roundtable—to collaboratively unpack the essence of business itself. They were initially unable to arrive at a neat consensus, but they continued to gather to discuss the constituent principles of commerce, and this book synoptically catalogs these discussions. Veblen defines business as the creation of wealth, and in this work, he supplies a surfeit of sensible advice regarding its proper pursuit. How to construct a winning idea, the significance of innovation and the adoption of a global perspective, and the basic principles of leadership are just a few of the topics that he considers. However, although the book largely approaches the nature of business from a practical rather than theoretical perspective, it manages to be both philosophically broad and morally ambitious. For example, Veblen considers commerce to be a messily human affair, resistant to any sort of facile distillation, and therefore only comprehensible via its social and cultural context. This leads to a consideration of business as a political phenomenon, and an examination of the relationship between wealth production, a commercial society, and a healthy and enlightened democracy. He also draws a connection between wealth creation and the service of a higher good, which, he asserts, is conducive to both profitability and the betterment of society. The study is filled with concrete case studies, ranging from the overall U.S. food system to the McDonald’s restaurant chain, that helpfully illustrate its worldview.
Despite navigating some muddy theoretical waters, Veblen’s prose never devolves into prohibitively technical jargon or conceptual abstraction. This is, first and foremost, a practical guidebook for the active or aspiring entrepreneur, but it’s also written for a broad audience that includes both veterans and novices. The author’s purview is remarkably panoramic, and he consistently attempts to articulate the moral and social power of business, and the responsibilities that such power entails: “The superior practitioner,” he says, prizes “integrity and knowledge over power and fame, reality over idealism, wealth creation and its management over profit-making, and entrepreneurship and open dealing over tradition and secrecy.” His book is as much a manifesto as it is an instructional manual—a kind of clarion call to a more moral outlook. However, it never treats truly difficult questions—such as how, precisely, to square the race to wealth with an ethical chastening of avarice—rigorously enough to fully persuade the unconvinced. Also, much of the counsel here, while perfectly reasonable, is also timeworn and familiar, as when Veblen encourages the reader to keep his or her promises, extols the virtue of persistence, and implores businesspeople “to make things work right.” The principal value of this work is to provocatively assess business in a larger frame and to possibly generate a deeper conversation about the advantages that it bestows upon the world.
A lucidly argued, if less than original, account of the moral implications of commerce.