A crisis can often highlight the best and worse in people, and reveals the faults we often overlook. A crisis like COVID-19 can also highlight the best and the worst of how our economy works.
Obviously, as a liberal I do not hate capitalism as an economic model. Free markets improve the movement of goods, drives down the cost of production and creates cheaper products on the market. Capitalism also drives scientific innovation and invention more than any other economic model. But capitalism is built on greed and the market has no conscience. Left unchecked, the market will strip forests and work employees to their bones. Recently, this kind of greed has manifested itself in the actions of some during this crisis. Examples include Timothy Martin’s poor treatment of his staff, Mike Ashley’s attempt to keep his stores open against government advice, and Richard Branson’s demand for a government bailout.
Even as I write, a story is emerging that contractors have charged huge amounts of money to build the temporary hospitals.
And yet this crisis has also brought us examples of capitalism and altruism coming together. Gin distilleries have converted production to hand sanitiser and are giving them away to the local community. Restaurants are giving out free food and drinks to NHS staff. One of my favourite was Gary Neville keeping on his hotel staff on full pay and donating the rooms to be used as free housing for NHS. You could argue that these were PR stunts, and maybe they were, but then if that’s true it just echoes the public’s desire for businesses to have a social conscience.
This idea of giving a social conscience to a business has been growing over the last 25 years. The author John Elkington made popular the phrase ‘triple bottom line’ to describe a new way to do business. Instead of solely focusing on the creation of profits and wealth, you also gave equal weight to environmental and social responsibilities. In the last 10-15 years, a company’s environmental responsibilities have become central to their brand and general reputation. This shift in consumer demands have forced many companies to make enormous efforts to change their ways, especially on the use of single-use plastics.
Could we also see a similar public pressure grow towards companies being more social responsible to their community?
From our progress in environmental protections, it is evident that government has an important role to play. Just as government regulations have made it impossible for companies to ignore their environmental impact, we now must adopt government policies that do the same for their social responsibilities. This could be stricter employment laws in the gig economy, or tax breaks on community projects. But it will also require pressure from the people companies really care about, their customers. With these pressures working in sync, then maybe we could give capitalism a conscience, and stop greed from being good and make greed a force for good.
Stuart is a columnist for Liberal Base . He Tweets @stueybourne.