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The Business of Business is Business

The American President Calvin Coolidge once said that the business of America is business. He might have added that the business of business everywhere is to pursue profits, for lately some corporate leaders seem to have lost sight of that elementary precept.

Daniel Vasella, the chairman and CEO of Switzerland-based Novartis, the world's fifth largest pharmaceutical company, recently wrote that multinational companies "have a duty to adhere to fundamental values and to support and promote them." If he were referring to corporate values such as honesty, innovation, voluntary exchange, and the wisdom of the marketplace, he would be right. But what he meant was "collaborat[ing]

constructively with the UN and civil society to define the best way to improve human rights."

The extension of human rights is a worthy goal, to be sure, but Vasella's saccharine altruism brings to mind economist Milton Friedman's reproachful observation that "businessmen believe that they are defending free enterprise when they declaim that business is not concerned 'merely' with profit but also with promoting desirable 'social' ends; that business has a 'social conscience' and takes seriously its responsibilities for