The New York Times, Sunday, November 24, 1968
by John Leo
Liberals and radicals who view big business as the chief obstacle to social reform have the right instincts but the wrong villain according to Robert Heibroner, the economist.
“The question that continually impresses and depresses me is why is it that the most rudimentary adaptations are so slow, why aren’t the cities cleaned up, why isn’t this or that done?,” he said in an interview in his upper Park Avenue apartment last week.
” I think the reason it isn’t done, by and large, is that it interferes with both the privileges and ideologies, not of big business, but of small business, whose representative, in a large way, Congress really is.”
His thesis is that big business has begun to see governmnent as a legitimate center of economic power, and has entered into an alliance with government — “a suspicious alliance, but a working one” — while the small businessman simply resists government efforts.
The liberal ascendent wing of big business, he said, “can see a chance for forging into new frontiers, for urban renewal, for the creamy blend of altruism and self-interest.”
“But little business — I don’t mean just the man who runs the cleaning and dyeing establishment, but also the small manufacturer — doesn’t see this rosy vista. It sees itself beset by taxes and the pressures of government and misses its great opportunities for profit.
“And when you ask why does Congress drag its heels, the answer is because it represents this point of view. The 10 or 20 million small businessmen, whose economic whose economic weight is just a feather on the scale, have an enormous political power. It is the attitudes of small businessmen that permeate America today, just as the labor attitude did in the thirties.”
Professor Heilbroner, who teaches at the New School for Social Research, is something of a small business himself. His books sell 250,000 copies a year, making him the best selling economist in the world, with the possible exception of John Kenneth Galbraith.
“The Wordly Philosophers,” a lucid and highly praised book on the major economic theorists, written while he was a graduate student in the early fifties, has sold over a million copies, and still sells 100,000 a year.
“My radical students haemorrhage when they hear my ides on small business,” he said. All they can see is big business.”
In 20 years, he said, all of big business will have evolved to the point where it is ready to eradicate the slums. “The Blaus of steel and the Cordiners of General Electric, who still sense creeping socialism in programs of government clearance will disappear and their places taken by the Sol Linowitzes (of Xerox) and Henry Ford.
“Big businessmen are now college graduates. All you have to do is read their speeches today and compare them with the blasts of the tycoons. They are also human beings, fathers whose sons come home and laugh in their faces at the pieties papa espouses, just like my own boy laughs at me. Like everyone else, businessmen are forced back on their heels in this age of nothing sacred.”
Though he believes the business system will gradually improve in social performance and endure far into the future he also believes that it is ultimately doomed.
“In the end,” he said, “the business civilization is not designed to cope with the problems that this level of technology and culture brings us, and it will eventually give way to a social universe not conceived of as a market, but as a subject for planning and for manipulation by intelligence.”
In an analogy worked out in his book, “The Limits of Capitalism,” Dr. Heilbroner sees the scientist as the germ of the new order that will replace capitalism, just as the merchant was the germ of the new capitalist order that replaced feudalism.
NOTE: distributed by Prof. Robert Bohlke along with his article, “The Business Elite, ‘The New Masses’ and The Urban Crises.” It expanded my thinking then. Revisiting fading photocopies received from my favourite teacher at American International College inspired this digital preservation.