David Vogel Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Business, Government, and Ethics in an Era of Globalization; Conversation with David Vogel, Solomon P. Lee Distinguished Professor in Business Ethics, Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley; July 11, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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Political Science and Business

What is it that you bring to the table as somebody who's in a business school but who comes with the skills of a political scientist? Talk a little about that, because traditionally in the past, when one thought about business school, we would think of business school as being a place where you learned "how to do it," so to speak.

The Haas School is quite different in that it's always had a very strong academic focus. Being in the business school has been advantageous in two ways. One is, I've learned a lot about business just [from] teaching and being with students, just being around colleagues who know a lot about business. And secondly, it's given me the flexibility to focus my research on business in a way which would have been more difficult in the political science department, where there's more emphasis on substantive sub-areas -- American, comparative, international, etc.

It's been very supportive, and my colleagues at the business school have always deferred to my standing as a political scientist and deferred to my appraisal, my work as a political scientist. I've always felt the environment was extremely supportive. I think there are many faculty at the business school whose work, if anything, is even more unrelated to business practice than my work is.

If students were watching this program and they were interested in pursuing the kinds of problems we're going to talk about now, what sorts of skills do you think they need to do research on business - government relations, which is the field that you've carved out?

They need a strong disciplinary background, whether it's in history, political science, sociology, economics, it doesn't matter. They need to come out of a discipline and have a disciplinary perspective, and then they can focus on substantive areas. I think people who begin with a substantive area are going to find themselves in academic difficulty.

How much business do they need to know? Do they also need the training that comes in a business field?

I'm not so sure. I've picked up a lot of stuff on my own. I read the business press regularly, I've just learned stuff over the years. I think you can educate yourself in enough business and be open to talk. Also, I've read a lot of ideas by past colleagues who know more about business than I do and make sure they're sound. So, that can be picked up, but the disciplinary training is indispensable.

Is it surprising that as important as business is in this country and in other capitalist countries, that there hasn't been as great a body of literature, for example, in political science on this subject?

There is a sub-field and if you add up -- it's not explicit but if you add up work on regulation, for example, and various policy areas, and you looked at work on trade policy, work on multinational corporations and their relationship to government -- if you looked at a lot of different sub-fields and add them up, it would look more impressive than it would if you just looked specifically at people who do business - government relations. So actually, there is a lot of literature in political science.

One area where there's been less work recently is the whole question of business power, business political activity. That has not been a major focus, but even there, if you look at the research on lobbying and influencing government -- you know, the interest group literature -- business is seen as a part of that. So there's more to it, actually, than you would think initially.

Of your many publications one of the books I looked at was an earlier book -- I think it's from the mid-nineties -- called Kindred Strangers, published by Princeton, which is a collection of essays in which you talk about the structural issues in understanding business.  One of the arguments that you make is that you have to look at the history of the relationship of American business to the U.S. government to understand the uniqueness of this relationship. Talk a little about that and help us understand what is unique about the history of this relationship.

My original interest in that was kindled by my first book, called Ethics in Profits, which was based on a set of meetings with corporate executives in the U.S. What struck me was the vehemence and hostility they had towards government and government intervention. I began to think about where that came from, and how it compared to [attitudes] in other capitalist nations.

Tell us a little about this animosity.

That was in the mid-seventies, and it was basically the sense that "We're doing our job and the government messes things up," and there was a real sense of, "We're running the country, we're important, we contribute vital public purposes, and the government really is a source of intrusion and hindrance." Basically, this is seen as a zero-sum relationship.

I read a book which summarized their views and then I tried to understand where these came from and what their historical, cultural roots were, and why they had such different attitudes towards government than was true in other capitalist nations. My original interest was kindled by the different perceptions that business had about the appropriate role of government in different capitalist societies and where that came from.

You're alerting us to the fact that it's very important to look at, in the founding of national corporations, whether the role of government was as important as it might have been in other countries.

Yes. My central argument was that in America the corporations came before big government, and so government was seen as sort of an upstart, in a way, while in European and other capitalist countries the opposite was the case. You had a strong state before you had large corporations, and that made a big difference. I've always been fascinated by history and read a lot of history, and seeing their views in a historical context was quite fascinating for me. I love to read histories of business - government relations. I think it's really fascinating and important.

This is different from other places that you've studied in the highly industrialized world, other countries, [where] government was more of a partner in the original founding.

Right, though if I would do that now, I think the world looks somewhat different. Neo-liberalism and neo-liberal values have become more important in many other capitalist nations. So, while the government still plays a more important role, the dramatic nature of the distinction is probably a little less now than it was thirty years ago, when I wrote that.

The other emphasis in these earlier essays is on the political culture of the United States, the emphasis on individualism and autonomy, which you're suggesting continues to be there, and influences the way not only business acts but also the public interest groups.

Yes. There's a sense in which it remains a highly individualistic society and people want to have structures in which they have a fair amount of autonomy and where the initiative rests within the private sector, including in civil society, not within government. I think that remains very important. It's a highly individualistic society. There are ways in which that benefits business and ways in which it increases regulation to business.

The way we perceive business, especially on the left, is one in which it is a unified community, it is a community that always gets its way, it's a community that exerts enormous influence. You're suggesting it's a lot more complicated than that, and most importantly, that it varies over time.

Right, the key is the varying over time. Now it is certainly true [that] we've been in a period for a fair amount of time where business has been relatively influential, but if you look back historically there have been periods where, as [my book] Fluctuating Fortunes [describes], the political influence of business has varied over time. It also varies by issues, and even if you look now at current issues, say, on climate change, you see companies suddenly very much on the defensive and likely to be forced to have regulations imposed on them which they would have otherwise not have preferred. So, I think there's also varying by issue areas.

In the earlier period you said that you had to look at questions such as does business define the agenda, does business benefit disproportionately from political process, the need for government to keep business confidence, and then the alleged superior capacity of business to mobilize resources. There were several factors that you identified to explain, over time, what's going on in terms of their success in realizing their agenda.

Within political science the political pendulum has shifted back and forth in the sixties and much of the seventies. The dominant view of political science was the pluralist perspective, so my perspective challenged that in my earlier work. Business was more privileged than pluralists had suggested. Then the center of gravity began to switch as [political scientists] moved to the privileged position of business, and then I sort of switched and basically said I thought they had exaggerated the role of business and that the pluralist position was more valid.

I think it's a question of time. There were times when the pluralist position perspective makes sense and describes the reality and there are other periods when the privileged position makes sense. I think it varies a lot over time.

A recent guest on our program was Lewis Lapham of Harper's, and he emphasized in his most recent book the impact of a memo by Lewis Powell for organizing [business]. Powell was organizing in the mid to late seventies, business was under attack, and there had to be an organizing effort by the business community in its entirety to respond to this attack, otherwise capitalism would be in danger in the United States. So ...

I don't think capitalism was ever in danger in the U.S., but there was a serious ideological counteroffensive during the mid to late seventies, which I describe in Fluctuating Fortunes, and that had a big impact. More generally, business has benefited from a change in the culture over the last decade. It has become much more entrepreneurial. People are excited about technology, Silicon Valley, many business leaders are seen as role models, media stars, and stuff. The culture has shifted and is now much more supportive and embracing of many aspects of business values than it even was in the late seventies and early eighties when business began to resurge politically.

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