Reading history gives you an understanding that things change. (Often for the better, see here and here, but that isn’t the point of today’s post). Here I just want to note how business ideas change. This is important to remember. What we advocate now might be thought weird, quaint, or barbaric in the future.
The Wharton School As A Hotbed Of Anti-Debt Thinking
I have been reading some business history to better understand the prior century’s views of what we might now call corporate social responsibility. Many pivotal figures in this were Quakers, including Joseph Wharton who set up the famous business school that bears his name.
Wharton’s Quaker religion was committed to the abolition of slavery. (One would have hoped all religions would have been anti-slavery but sadly no). He was, however, more of an incrementalist. This is a stain on his character compared to some of his more radical co-religionists who were much clearer on the need for immediate and complete abolition.
Despite some equivocation on slavery Wharton certainly had firm views on many subjects. Apparently, when he set up the business school he was quite clear that his views should be what was being taught at his school.
Business Ideas Change
What were those ideas? He was a committed protectionist which influenced the school.
He emphatically insisted that faculty advocate protectionism, in which he passionately believed.Mulhern and Pitzer, location 1505, ebook in Angell and Dandelion, (2017)
I can’t imagine Wharton teaches protectionism much nowadays. Although Donald Trump is an alum so maybe they can take ‘credit’ for his views.
Rather hilariously, Wharton also insisted upon a conservative outlook towards debt. This is pretty much the exact opposite of what all business schools were teaching in finance a few years back. I know the Wharton School has refocused a bit in the last few years so I’m not sure where they are on debt now. Yet, the about-face was pretty remarkable. The point being business ideas change. We should be open to our ideas being seen as weird in the future.
Many of the Quaker business people come out pretty well when we look back at them — at least if we grade on a curve compared to their contemporaries. They often had a strong moral code. It is, thus, interesting to note that the code for one Quaker was either not always applied, or simply quite different to what is generally seen as appropriate nowadays.
Joseph Rowntree, a well-known chocolate maker from York, England, was a Quaker. (His company is probably most famous for developing the Kit-Kat, sadly not till 10 years after Joseph’s death). When the company was first set up it wasn’t doing great. There were strong competitors in the industry many of whom were also Quakers, e.g., the Cadburys and the Frys. The competitors were better at sweet making than Joseph, so he came up with the obvious solution — steal their ideas. He hired their staff and soon had a really good idea of what they were up to. His chocolate did seem to get better so I guess that is a potential moral justification?
How far this is an abnegation of Quaker principles and practice in business it is hard to tell — the practice of eliciting privileged information from competitors for money may have been more acceptable then than it is today.Paul Chrystal, location 2545, ebook in Angell and Dandelion, (2017)
Business ideas change.
Read: Stephen W. Angell and Pink Dandelion (2017) Quakers, Business, And Industry, Quakers and the Disciplines: Volume 4, Friends Association for Higher Education Book