Hitler vs. Emerson–which business model do you have?

This morning I came across this column by Paul Rosenberg.  It raises some fundamental questions for those of us in business.  Perhaps it will give you pause to consider which kind of business person you are and what kind of businesses you want to patronize.

Emerson and Hitler in the Marketplace

I really hate using Hitler quotes these days; people take them as ultimate slams,  rather than illuminating thoughts from a bad guy. But that said, Adolph did make a very clear and useful statement when he said this: 

I have not come into this world to make men better, but to make use of their weaknesses.

This is a fundamental model of human action, and sadly, one that is fairly common. Granted, most people don’t take it nearly as far as Hitler did, but they do use the model, purposely taking advantage of human weaknesses.

My first professional-level boss operated on this principle. He’d take advantage of you as far as you’d let him, although he did compartmentalize his actions. That is, outside of work he acted like my grandpa, but at the office he’d rip me off whenever he could… and he did the same to our customers.

Sadly, there are a lot of people like my old boss, and a lot of them mask their behavior in free-market rhetoric. Nonetheless, the principle underlying their actions is “Make use of their weaknesses.” They may limit their predations to the marketplace (for which I am glad), but their principle of operation inside the marketplace is corrupt, and it tends to corrupt the market as well as themselves.

And while I have no desire to get specific pointing fingers, I will share some examples:

  • You sell people things they don’t really need, because you can.
  • Your advertising takes advantage of psychological weaknesses – hustling people into buying more of your product than they would if you reasoned with them.
  • You get legislation written to drive politically weaker competitors out of your market.
  • You pay politicians to force people to buy your product.
  • You use your superior influence to have standards written in your favor.
  • You purposely mislead customers.
  • You use misleading click-bate to juice your numbers and “get famous.”
  • You purposely stir controversy to “get famous.”
  • You manipulate interest rates so that people have to put their money in a pot you control.
  • You customize the web pages people see, serving the desires of those who pay you. The page-viewer isn’t told he/she is being manipulated in this way.

And so on.

I think we all have to admit that this method of doing business is becoming dominant. Clearly it’s already dominant in Washington, DC, on Wall Street, and in the boardrooms of the various mega-corps.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line in all this is that these people aren’t serving their customers and aren’t honest players in a free market. Rather, they are seeking and exploiting weaknesses.

I find that method of living to be pretty damned ugly, and I think it speaks to the insecurities of those who engage in it. If you survive by taking advantage of others, what does that say about your confidence in your own abilities? Or the strength of your self-image minus your possessions?

Enter Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson said a lot of interesting things, but few of them better than this short (and edited) passage:

A  man buys and sells in the market place and takes care that others shall not cheat him. But a day comes when he takes care that he shall not cheat others. In that day his market-cart becomes a chariot of the sun.

This is the kind of business I like seeing. Furthermore, this is the kind of character development I like seeing.

I see business as a heroic, creative venture, delivering real benefits to humanity. Businesses feed people, move people, house them, clothe them, and cure their diseases. Businesses bless humanity.


My point is that we should consider these two models. Both are operating in what we call free markets, and it is fairly easy to be seduced into using exploitation… and for all the reasons we encountered back in high school:

  • The other kids are doing it.
  • It makes you cool.
  • Jimmy did it and he didn’t get hurt.
  • It impresses the chicks (or whomever).

We, however, are no longer teenagers, and so I’ll suggest that we act according to Ralph’s model, not Adolph’s.

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Until later . . .

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