The anti-capitalist narrative of the business world does not have a lot of good things to say about businessmen. They are presumed to be greedy, short-sighted, mean-spirited, self-righteous, egotistical, and willing to sell their own mothers into prostitution for a quick buck.
Ayn Rand's view of the capitalist wasn't much brighter. She used a lot of the same terms to describe businesspeople, and tried to convince us that they were positive attributes. She also added a couple which seemed completely out of place for the business world: heroic and moral. I understand what she was getting at, and largely agree with what she was trying to say (moreso now that I've studied Austrian economics), I just think she could have done it in a better way.
One of the things on which the anticapitalists and Rand seem close to agreement is the subject of firing or laying off employees. The idea is that the businessman sees the employee as merely a tool, an object to be cast aside when it is no longer useful/profitable. The tragedy implied by the anticapitalist is the dehumanization of the worker. Rand casts the firing as a good thing for the company and thus an ultimately moral thing to do.
Michael Z. Williamson, in his book Freehold, describes at one point the main character working for a small landscaping company. At one point, the company's owner finds that he is unable to continue employing her, so he is forced to let her go. In contrast to the above narratives, this boss seems to take it personally, as though he felt a sense of responsibility for his employees. Williamson describes the owner as shamed by the fact that he can no longer produce enough money to pay his best workers.
The anticapitalist would sneer at this, saying that businessmen lack the capacity to feel anything for their workers, and that this is merely wishful thinking. Rand would sneer at it too, saying that businessmen who care about their workers on a personal level are hamstrung by their sentimentality. Still, Williamson's view is at the very least well-represented in a fair bit of pro-free market writing.
I've often wondered what kind of people I was working for.
Just a year after I moved to Oklahoma to work for a small telecommunications company, that company lost its venture capital in the wake of September 11. My boss was forced to lay everyone off -- there was no money to pay us. I fumbled around for about 6 weeks, then found a job at the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, as previously mentioned. It's now almost 6 years later, and I'm working for Nick again, in his new company.
As it happens, I'd been thinking about these different perspectives on businessmen as I returned to the private sector, and was curious to know which perspective best fit Nick. Yesterday as we were sitting around the conference table working on various things, Nick left the conference room and came back, saying "Hey Tom, look what I found". I looked up and saw that he was holding a chain of about 20 paperclips.
I gave him a puzzled look, and he explained: "Back when I had to lay everyone off at the other company, I had a stack of paperwork that I had to fill out for each person. Each stack was held together with a paperclip, and I made this chain as I filled out the paperwork. One of these is yours, and since I had to lay myself off, one is mine. It's the saddest thing I've ever had to do."
I think I got my answer.
I also think there are decent people all around us, we just have to be willing to see them.