In the November issue, I suggested that one key to business success is treating others well: offering customers a better value proposition than they can find elsewhere and offering employees more attractive employment than they can find elsewhere. Otherwise, customers vanish, and they don’t tell their friends about their great experience. And employees quit. And even if they don’t, they’ll be less productive than they would be if they were treated at least as well as in their next-best option.
All of which raises a timely question for February: Are businesses called to love their customers and workers? Or are firms merely doing something that looks like love, when in reality it’s mere economic self-interest?
Sorting this out requires some definition of love as a starting point. According to St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who was both a first-rate theologian and a first-rate economist, “To love is to will the good of the other.” That’s a high bar: It requires intentionally considering, discerning and choosing what’s good for others.
But how do we know which loving actions to pursue for the good of others? And are good intentions enough to deliver what’s best?
We’re obviously best positioned to seek “the good of the other” in our closest relationships: family, friends, neighbors and romantic interests—especially of the long-term variety. We promote their good because their good is ours, too.
We’re also better positioned to love those closest to us because we are more knowledgeable about their hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes, histories and challenges than we are about a friendly acquaintance’s. Economist Adam Smith, most famous for his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, observed as much in his lesser-known book, his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments. According to Smith, “We expect less sympathy from a common acquaintance than from a friend… we expect still less sympathy from an assembly of strangers.”
Now, not even those who love us and know us best always get it right. We’ve all received gifts for Valentine’s or other occasions—even from those most sympathetic to us—that were downright awful. The givers meant well; they sought our good. But they don’t know us as well as we know ourselves, no matter how close they are or how much they care. What matters is that they cared enough to try. And we’re thankful.
Using this definition of love, it’s clear that it rings truest in the context of our personal relationships and less true in our economic relationships. I can’t love my hair stylist in the sense that Aquinas describes, but I am thankful she’s there. And since I want her to be happy to see me each time, I tip well, I’m always on time and I seldom cancel an appointment.
Which is one of the marvelous, wonderful outcomes of markets: We serve others and they, in turn, serve us in ways that promote our mutual good—both individually and socially. It’s not love, but sometimes it looks a lot like it.
And it’s true for even distant connections: In the last 25 years, a billion people worldwide moved out of extreme global poverty by participating in the global economy. I don’t know any by name, but I love that outcome.
This Valentine’s Day, let’s act more loving with our economic partners. Let’s listen to our employees; they often generate the best ideas because they are closest to the work itself. And even if your mom isn’t your client, try to treat that client as respectfully as you would your mom in the same situation.
Oh, and don’t forget to send your mom flowers on Valentine’s Day. She’ll be thankful, and so will every single person who made those flowers possible for you on Feb. 14.
Victor V. Claar is associate professor of economics in Florida Gulf Coast University’s Lutgert College of Business, where he holds the Truist Distinguished Professorship in Free Enterprise. He also serves on the Research Advisory Council of the James Madison Institute.