Capitalism and business are different things. Few stories illustrate that fact quite so sharply as the news that big retailers are demanding that the Government impose mandatory controls on what they can sell.
Apparently the British Retail Consortium is ‘disappointed’ that Theresa May’s new health drive is voluntary. Mike Coupe, the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s, spells it out for us:
“We need a holistic approach to tackle childhood obesity, including compulsory measured targets across all nutrients – not just sugar – and mandatory traffic light labelling across all food and drink products, regardless of whether they are consumed inside or outside the home.”
But why? The absence of mandatory action is not the same thing as a bar on voluntary action. The article reports that Sainsbury’s is already taking steps such as banning the sale of multi-packs for unhealthy foods.
Libertines might dislike the nannyish nature of that sort of thing, but nobody would deny Sainsbury’s the right to set its sales priorities as it saw fit. Nobody, that is, except Sainsbury’s itself.
The answer, of course, is capitalism.
Simply put, if Mike Coupe gave full vent to his moralising unilaterally it would be bad for business. Customers might – and indeed, many probably would – simply transfer their business to another store that sold what they wanted.
That’s one of the great virtues of the market model: that success comes from giving people what they want. The people who thrive in a capitalist economy are those who are most adept at identifying and fulfilling people’s needs.
In a free market, the people at the top are not the wisest masters but the wisest servants. There’s a fundamental humility to succeeding that way – you can’t sell people what they ought to want, only what they do want
Contrary to the lazy assumptions of many, businesses do not always make good capitalists. Larger ones especially are often very happy to collude with the state for their own benefit.
We usually think about this in purely profit-focused terms – for example, how many large corporations counter-intuitively demand more regulation because in truth the burden falls far more heavily on their smaller rivals, squeezing out challengers and reducing competition.
But this is the era of ‘corporate social responsibility’, which deliberately blurs the lines between the private sector and the state and produces CEOs like Coupe, who appear to think and act very much like politicians, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see such behaviour spreading beyond the pursuit of profit and into policing behaviour.
If he had his way, our major supermarkets would make a covert but fundamental shift from servants to masters, responding primarily not to our needs and wants but to those of activists and policy-makers.
Such an alliance between politicians, moral crusaders, and paternalistic captains of industry feels very 19th-Century, but is no less real for that.
The business of business is service, not rule. If a Conservative Government were to collude with corporations to restrict consumer choice, it would betray the purposes of both. Theresa May is right to disappoint these people; and long may she continue to do so.
Henry is the Assistant Editor at Conservative Home. Follow him on Twitter: @HCH_Hill
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty