In 1953 President Eisenhower nominated Charles Wilson, the President of General Motors, to be his Secretary of Defense. He retained a huge stock position in GM and during his confirmation hearings was asked if he could make a decision that was bad for GM. His response is still remembered forever as the classic example of business arrogance – “What’s good for GM is good for America.”
Except he never said that. Wilson – who had overseen GM’s war production during World War II – said something very different: that he hadn’t imagined the possibility, “because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” Wilson was saying exactly the opposite – that the best thing he could do for General Motors would be to faithfully serve his country, so there was no conflict. Wilson understood that business can only flourish when the country does.
In his excellent The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite, Ross School of Business Professor Mark Mizruchi describes how for the first few decades after the Second World War, the American business community was united around centrist policies that were in the broad national interest. This behavior was certainly self-interested and often pushed policies that were far more favorable to the elite than they were to the working class, but at base business leaders recognized that their interests and the country’s went hand in hand.