Order at Amazon: Nothing is Free: The Price Only Business can Pay to Protect Free Markets.
What is the purpose of business, particularly as it relates to the welfare of employees? Economists, business leaders, and theologians engage in endless debate about this topic. Regrettably, it tends to be two separate debates with economists and business leaders talking amongst themselves and theologians talking to each other. The first debate tends to be long on economic ramifications but without considerable reflection on what moral imperatives might be at play. The second debate tends to be long on moral reflection but too often within the context of (sometimes profound) economic illiteracy. Each community tends to view the other with suspicion, if not hostility. Layer on top of this the political divide between libertarians who see only a minimal role for government intervention in business, and liberals who believe a primary purpose of government is to intervene in economic affairs to ensure equitable outcomes, and you frequently end up with unproductive heated debates.
This inability to reflect both economically and morally on such questions leads to significant compartmentalization, so well described in John Knapp’s How the Church Fails Business People (and What Can Be Done About It. See my blog series on the book here.) Businesses frequently dissuade people from bringing their morals into the workplace. Pastors are reticent to approach the topic, except in platitudes, feeling inadequate to wrestle deeply with economic implications. Some businesspeople prefer not to hear about such topics at church (either distrusting the pastor’s understanding or because they see church as a safe haven from the cares of the world) and most pastors are content to oblige. (And from my experience, those pastors do that do aggressively raise the topic, frequently do so from a variety of deep ideological convictions that tend not to generate helpful dialog and reflection.) Yet what we need is “courageous conversations,” as Knapp calls them, where we genuinely explore how work and faith interact. But how do we begin such a conversation?
Dave Geenens, Director of the School of Business and Graduate Business Programs at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, has given us a wonderful gift in starting courageous conversations with his new book Nothing is Free: The Price Only Business can Pay to Protect Free Markets. This is NOT an academic treatise. It is a fable.
One of the first lessons I learned in business was that nothing is free. Free freight? There is no such thing. That simply means that the cost of freight is covered by profit made elsewhere. By one, get one free? The cost of the second item is covered in the margin of the first one. Interest free? The cost of interest is absorbed in the profit made on the sale of the item. Nothing is free.”
The book introduces Rebecca Morton, founder of the franchise business Cupcakes and Coffee, based in Atchison, Kansas, just as the corporation is about to go public. Rebecca is wrestling with the implications of what this means for her and her business, particularly with the increased focus on increasing shareholder value. Then she meets Brother Mark, a Benedictine Monk. Throughout the book we listen in on Rebecca’s conversations and inner reflections as she tries to make sense of it all.
Geenens draws on Roman Catholic social teaching to highlight the good that business is intended to do. At the risk of spoilers, if business fails to live out its charge to care for the well-being of its employees, other institutions (namely government) must intervene to correct the inadequacy. Advantage gained by business through the neglect of employees and failure to the good it is intended to do isn’t free. The cost is increased government intervention.
What is the good that business is to do and how do we achieve it? It is a complicated question that Geenens does not directly answer. Instead, he invites us to consider the four cardinal virtues: justice, wisdom, courage, and moderation. How might these inform us as we think about the intersection of work and faith? I won’t give away the whole story here. Geenens’ ideas are pulled together into one image at the end of the book, but you’ll need to buy the book to see what I mean.
The book is well written and accessible to most audiences. (No degrees in economics or theology required.) I can see this as a wonderful selection for a church book club, any community of business professionals interested in integrating faith and work, as well as a text for college or graduate classes. Despite the explicitly Christian context of the story, I think the book has merit beyond discussion in religous communities as we think about business ethics. The book is a wonderful discussion starter … a great starting place for a courageous conversation. Buy your copy now at Amazon: Nothing is Free: The Price Only Business can Pay to Protect Free Markets.