Philosopher George Santayana's maxim, "those who cannot remember the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat it," demonstrates that the most enduring wisdoms can often be stated in a single sentence.
One of history's most powerful lessons is how Marxist-socialist theory inspired the subjugation and impoverishment of half the world's population, while free-enterprise capitalism saw the other half achieve historic levels of prosperity, social progress and personal freedom. A starkly clear example is Germany. When the Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1989, West Germany had risen from the ashes of war to become the world's second-largest economy, while socialist East Germany was an impoverished wasteland. Yet, in recent years, the principal conveyer of the benefits of free-enterprise capitalism, the corporation, has come under attack. Increasingly, the words "corporate" and "profit" are being used as derogatory adjectives.
It's hard to believe that these colossal 20th-century lessons could already be forgotten. But how many students are being taught those lessons? Sadly, very few. Not only do our schools and universities fail to teach these historical facts, many teachers and university professors expose students to the same left-wing anti-business rhetoric espoused by their union leaders. Some even see sinister motives behind well-intended corporate philanthropy. University professors decry putting donor's names on plaques recognizing support for the construction of classrooms or laboratories, and some even believe that corporate recruitment literature should be banned from campus. Where do they think jobs for their students will come from and who pays the taxes that help pay their salaries?
Assuming the education system hasn't done enough to make "corporation" a derogatory adjective in the minds of students, along comes Hollywood. Witness movies such as James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster Avatar, which featured a greedy corporate boss intent on destroying the forest home of native humanoids on the distant planet of Pandora to mine a precious mineral called unobtanium. Animated films intended for very young children have morphed from innocent fantasies such as Snow White into films embodying a message that corporations pollute or destroy. The latest is the hugely popular The Lego Movie, featuring President Business as an evil tyrant out to destroy the world. There's even an organization called "Counter Corp" that sponsors an annual "Anti-Corporate Film Festival" in San Francisco. Add to this the anti-corporate pronouncements of numerous pop stars and it's indeed a miracle if any positive thoughts about the private sector survive the teenage years.
Sooner or later, public opinion translates into public policy. The chances of reversing wealth-killing public-policy ideas are far less than helping to foster positive public policy in the first place. When misguided or malicious people with a public voice portray "corporate" as a derogatory adjective, they must not go unchallenged. Thoughtful, clear and frequent public communication from business leaders is vitally important. And rather than being defensive, leaders should remember they have a great story to tell. After all, who makes a bigger contribution to our country? Private business creates the vast majority of jobs and drives social progress by funding essentially all social services – both directly and through taxes paid by employees. Successful, profitable corporations also bolster private and public-sector pension plans through share price growth and dividends.
A widespread misconception that corporate leaders must address is that small business is good and big business is bad. In fact, big businesses provide the core economic base for small and medium-sized businesses. It's a vital symbiotic economic ecology. Large corporations are also the prime philanthropic contributors to social agencies, health care, education, amateur sports and the arts.
Yes, I know from first-hand experience that CEOs have an agenda full of priorities, but they need to remember that investors, employees and regulators aren't their only stakeholders. If corporate leaders don't tell this tremendously positive story, who will? I urge every chief executive to recognize that public-thought leadership is crucial, both to the future of their enterprises and our country. They should take every opportunity to communicate and demonstrate the contribution that free-enterprise business makes in providing young Canadians with opportunities to achieve their career potential, while generating wealth for the nation. And they should be sure to explain that remembering those lessons of the past century will help keep Canada one of the world's best places to live.
Gwyn Morgan is a retired Canadian business leader who has been a director of five global corporations.