Profitic justice

Sometimes the greater good is just good business

Sep 16, 2019 by

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Adam Smith has never been confused with Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount has nothing good to say about the rich and powerful. But, now and again, capitalist free markets understand the pursuit of justice makes economic sense.

On Sept. 4, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam rescinded a bill that would have allowed citizens to be sent for trial in mainland China. Apparently it wasn’t protesters’ passion but corporate pressure that won her over. The airport was closed, the real estate market stressed, the Hang Seng Index down 5,000 points.

“Beijing just wouldn’t risk damaging its ­‘international profile,’ which took so long to build, as ‘not only a big economy, but a big, ­responsible economy,’ ” wrote Yi-Zheng Lian, former chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal, in The New York Times, of Lam’s comments with business leaders secretly recorded and leaked Sept. 2. “There is unintended mercy in cold calculus, apparently.”

Similarly, doing well by doing good appears to be working for U.S. retailers that voluntarily restrict gun sales. Walmart announced Sept. 3 it was stopping short-barrel rifle and handgun ammunition sales after shootings took lives in August at two of its stores. This exceeds restrictions voluntarily imposed by other big retailers. Walmart stopped selling assault-style rifles in 2015 and last year raised the minimum age to purchase guns and ammunition to 21, as Dick’s Sporting Goods also has done. The changes bring these retailers more in line with serving the specific needs of hunting and sport-shooting customers.

“The status quo is unacceptable,” wrote Walmart chief executive Doug McMillon in an email to employees.

There are limits to corporate power, and Walmart’s contributions to the National Rifle Association imply a one-step-forward-two-steps-back strategy. But stores should be commended for making the changes they can.

The free market is far from morally pure. Too often profits are more important than people. But, ironically, the pursuit of profit might occasionally contribute to the pursuit of justice.

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