Many companies in Canada and elsewhere, including energy companies, seem to think that they can meet climate alarmists half-way. Or more; some actually seem determined to lobby for their own extinction within their trade associations, in the pages of newspapers, and in the halls of government, like some especially batty modern-day Marie Antoinette urging the Committee on Public Safety to step up its measures against those selfish aristos. We do have some sympathy for the corporate impulse to sit down for a civil discussion in pursuit of win-win scenarios; in the world of business such a mindset and temperament are often the foundation of consumer and producer satisfaction and thus of prosperity. But behaviour and habits of mind that work very well in the marketplace can be appallingly unsuited to the far less civil and cooperative world of activism. And thus a great many entrepreneurs and managers, including those here in Canada who think they can convince climate alarmists like the Prime Minister that while fossil fuels are awful and shouldn’t exist, Canadian fossil fuels are the least awful and should be eliminated last, find themselves in the sorry position of having brought a sandwich to a knife fight, and are fated to starve as someone else carves up and eats their lunch.
At CDN we envy entrepreneurs the fact that they live in a truly happy land where people get along and nearly everybody wins. We don’t mean it sarcastically. It really is what happens in the overwhelming majority of commercial transactions. When you consider how many things are bought and sold each day and how few are even the subject of a complaint, let alone a lawsuit, it is positively dizzying. But politics is different, and pity the naive wheeler and dealer from the world of commerce when he wanders into that jungle.
Markets are not the Garden of Eden. There is a natural tension between buyers who want to get more for less and sellers who want to give less for more. And there are dishonest people and idiots on both sides of the counter. But the miracle of markets, and we use the term advisedly, is that there is a wide and happy zone in which those who produce goods and services get more than they expend creating them and yet buyers pay less than the product is worth to them.
We are accustomed to speak of a “competitive marketplace” and to praise it for requiring sellers to offer better deals or deplore it as “cutthroat”. But the fact is that markets are overwhelmingly cooperative. A doughnut shop may be tussling for customers with the doughnut shop on the next street, and to some degree the sandwich shop on the corner. But it is in cooperation with everyone who sells it sugar, flour, food colouring, coffee beans, microwave ovens, and literally hundreds of other products, and with its customers. Just as the microwave manufacturer is in competition with a handful of other appliance makers but in cooperation with the sellers of microchips, plastics, glass, wiring, and also the truckers who take microwaves to stores, the stores that sell them and, as the web expands, everyone who sells those stores things. And their employees. And so on.
The drawback of this generally desirable situation is that when businesspeople find themselves drawn into public policy, usually because of some unanticipated and to them baffling and unjust attack based on an ignorant misunderstanding of what they do, they are in an environment alien to them in its basic processes. For politicians, bureaucrats and activists, the world is overwhelmingly win-lose and they are not looking to split the difference. While there is occasional scope for cooperation, for instance a coalition of parties each itself unable to win an election, or activists pushing a cause from outside government and politicians pushing it from within, it is far more a ruthless winner-take-all world than the markets that activists frequently describe in such terms.
To some extent temperament determines whether one goes into business or into activism. But once the choice is made, experience reinforces the underlying disposition. In the marketplace, it is those who are incapable of placing importance on the other person’s satisfaction, or of seeing their point of view and accommodating it, who inevitably fail at the many cooperative tasks necessary for success at entrepreneurship.
The reverse is true in politics, domestic or foreign. There it is a willingness to mercilessly reduce competitors to rubble that speeds the rise to the top and the disappearance of competition. And so it is that business people, including crucially in this context oil, gas and coal company executives, routinely make a catastrophic misjudgement about the situation they face when a political movement targets them.
They think the reasonable people will get together and find constructive solutions while the unreasonable ones will marginalize themselves, exactly as happens in the marketplace. But while it is true in their profession, it is not true in the public arena. Those who prosper there do so because of a very different set of skills, in which cooperation is the exception and genuinely ruthless competition in a zero-sum game the rule. And so the well-meaning entrepreneur brings a sandwich to a knife fight.
Our advice to entrepreneurs who wish to understand and succeed in the world of activism, including climate activism, is that they should read less Adam Smith and more Whittaker Chambers. Or Lenin.