Beyond the Robber Barons
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that we as a people do not have a very accurate picture of ourselves. We go through life carrying assumptions that are at odds with our actual situation, and we don’t even realize we’re doing it. One example of this is the concept of “robber barons.”
We all learned about them in our high school Civics or American History courses, and some of us studied them all over again in college. We were told about the rise of corporations during the so-called Gilded Age, and we were taught to boo and hiss at men like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. They were the bad guys because they used whatever means they could to run their competitors out of business, and then they took full advantage of the resulting monopoly by raising prices while keeping wages low. We were also taught that reformers during the Progressive Era worked hard to “bust” the trusts and to regulate businesses.
I’m not going to dispute any of these historical claims. My contention is simply that the story leaves us with a false impression about our own era. If I’m not mistaken, the average student of American History walks away from the course thinking, “Thank God we got rid of those nasty robber barons, and now we live in a fair and equitable society.”
The point that we don’t seem to realize is this: American life—and indeed, life in any economically-developed nation—is dominated by corporations. Nor is it a simple matter to declare whether this is a good or a bad thing.
I myself have spent most of my working life within one corporation or another. And therefore I have to confess that the influence of “the corporation,” both on my own life and on my society, is an incredibly complex issue. There are always young firebrands, especially within the church, who want to “speak truth to power” and blame Corporate America for much of the injustice in our society. As an insider, I simply cannot make blanket statements like that. People who don’t think about it much may be quick to call corporations rapacious, greedy, or uncaring by nature. I don’t agree, even though I can think of numerous cases in which each of my employers has manifested those traits. The problem is, in each of those cases, I can also recall the names of people within the company who worked hard, as I did, to correct the moral errors we felt our company was guilty of. And it was never so easy as saying that upper management had evil intentions. Insofar as we were behaving unjustly as a company, it was due to lack of foresight more than evil intentions. In some cases, decision-makers simply failed to foresee all of the consequences of their policies. For example, a decision was made by Committee A and handed over to Department B for execution. But Department B was totally unaware of how this would impact the customer or the surrounding community, because it was Department C who dealt with the public, not Department B.
Let me put this another way. In those Civics and History courses, we got the impression that the “trusts” were evil in and of themselves, and that they were bad as a result of evil leadership—individual men who built those companies by unjust means. So even though we were talking about sprawling businesses that employed thousands of people, those Civics and History courses simplified the situation by pointing the finger at just a few individuals (Rockefeller and Carnegie in particular). What those courses obscured was the fact that the power of a corporation is widely distributed. As I said in my last post, no one individual has that much power—not even the CEO or the Chairman of the Board. If a company is rapacious, it’s not because the man or woman at the top is a robber baron; it’s because countless hosts of individuals within the company—including you and me—are not being vigilant.
I propose that we go beyond booing and hissing at the robber barons, and that we take a more careful look at our actual situation now. Every individual in this society is linked to “the corporation” in extremely complex ways, whether we are employed by a corporation or not. We are all part of the problem… and the solution. Nobody can play the hero today, standing Nathan-like before some CEO and saying, “Thou art the man.” We’re all the man. We’re all responsible. The question I’ve been asking you to consider in this blog is, “What is God doing in our lives each day while we’re at work?” And in the context of today’s post, we can rephrase that question: “What is God doing in our lives each day while we’re at work, to make us at least a little bit more a part of the solution instead of a part of the problem?”