I have resisted commenting on political issues—such as the riots in Greece against the austerity measures by the government and the more than three-month long student protests in Montreal against the small tuition hikes introduced by the Quebec government—because I really want to write about ethical dilemmas with which people grapple in business. However, business operates in a social and political context that affects its ability to succeed: the Greek rioters have caused direct property damage and lowered sales and productivity of Greek companies, and the protesting students in Montreal have had a similar impact in that city. And businesspeople can affect their social and political context by expressing their views publicly, pressuring the government, or taking their business to more hospitable places.
But in order to take a stand and action, we need a clear understanding what gives rise to the Greek riots, the tuition protests, and even the “no zeros” high school grading policy employed by the Edmonton Public School Board. (Here is a link to that story for those outside of Canada who may not have heard of the high school physics teacher who defied the policy and gave zeros to students for missed assignments, and got suspended for doing so: http://www.edmontonsun.com/2012/06/01/school-grading-policys-bafflegab). And yes, if high school teachers are forced to give the same marks to students who don’t do their assignments as to those who do, business will be negatively affected when these graduates enter the labor market.
But let’s see how these three events are linked, what has given rise to them, and why businesspeople should care. The common denominator between the austerity riots, the tuition protests, and the “no zeros” grading policy is a modern distortion of justice prevalent in the Western culture: egalitarianism. Instead of giving people what they deserve, or getting what you have earned, egalitarianism advocates making everyone more or less equal, regardless of character or conduct. So those who are less productive should get the same benefits as those who produce more, and the state plays the role of an equalizer of entitlements.
The Greeks are upset because they are used to their entitlements—which the government can no longer afford, as the Greek tax payers are not producing enough to keep up with the government’s “redistribution” scheme.
The students in Montreal are upset because they believe they are entitled to nominal tuition fees (which are not even approximating the real cost of their education) in the name of egalitarianism: as students, most have low incomes and therefore other tax payers who earn more should subsidize their education. (The protests in Montreal have expanded far beyond tuition hikes to general protests against income inequality).
The “no zeros” high school grading policy in Edmonton is also based on the doctrine of egalitarianism: all students should get good grades, regardless of performance, lest those who get lower grades get discouraged and their “self-esteem” wounded.
What makes egalitarianism so hazardous is its underlying rejection of values and embrace of altruism. If productive work and performance at school are regarded the same as unproductiveness and non-performance, then productive work and performance are not values at all. Without such values as production and knowledge (whether learned at school or elsewhere), we cannot survive.
Embracing altruism is equally hazardous. When the Greeks argue that their need for entitlements such as pensions and health care constitutes a claim on tax payers in the other European Union countries, they are embracing altruism. When the students in Montreal argue that their need for nominal tuition fees constitutes a claim on the Quebec tax payers, they are embracing altruism. When the Edmonton Public School Board argues that those students who have earned their grades should be sacrificed to those who haven’t, it is embracing altruism. If we are asked to adopt altruism and sacrifice our interests for the sake of others, we cannot survive.
Egalitarianism, the rejection of values necessary for human survival, and altruism are an interlinked triple threat to business. Businesspeople should care and do what they can to fight these threats: first, embrace the notion of justice based on what you deserve, and then, speak up publicly when opportunities arise, sponsor good private schools, run their businesses as meritocracies—and if possible (admittedly a big “if”), move somewhere else where the triple threat is lower.