Do capitalists want to keep capitalism healthy?

Justin Lester is young, intelligent and gawkily personable — mayor of Wellington against what some thought long odds. What could he do for Labour nationally if he was in Parliament?

Certainly, senior Labour figures drew attention to him through his two council terms.

He, Phil Goff in Auckland and Lianne Dalziel’s easy win in Christchurch and higher Labour-Green numbers on big-city councils have lifted morale a little in a Labour party fearing a fourth term in opposition.

Goff will be an able mayor. He was an able foreign and trade minister. The shambles on the right in the biggest city is a finger-wag for National — though not much should be read nationally into council votes.

Goff wants to emulate Wellington’s “living wage” for staff. A Labour-Green government would do it for government staff and, eventually, contractors.

The living wage is not rich pickings. But, with few exceptions, business thinks that to mandate it is poison to the liberal-capitalist business model.

But is it? Or is the bigger risk good capitalists’ failure to call out errant capitalists? That is — as with an ossified, septuagenarian United Nations Security Council which thought a woman not worth the top spot — will change come by way of a catastrophic event?

In both cases such an event could come by courtesy of a trigger-happy, unguided-missile, errant-capitalist Donald Trump presidency, if the United States turns out so irascible, stupid and self-obsessed as to elect him.

The latest Trumpet is the leaked recording of his misogyny. The previous week’s was that he stacked up $US916 million of tax losses, on which he rode tax-free for near 20 years.

Trump cheerleader Rudolph Giuliani called Trump a “genius” for that. Others said he had a fiduciary duty to investors to pay no more tax than the law required. He would risk lawsuits if he did not exploit all the loopholes the Congress kindly provided. That duty trumped any wider citizen’s duty to pay taxes.

Leave aside that this was a personal, not a business, tax matter, and that Trump has over the time of his stellar — in the sense of shooting and falling stars — business career been sued multiple times.

The bigger issue is the risk to capitalism.

There is a widespread view, built on a (mis)reading of Adam Smith, that firms have a responsibility only to their shareholders and that in discharging that responsibility they are discharging their social responsibility.

On this view, Serco was an exemplary member of society in its focus on shareholder return when (mis)managing Mt Eden prison.

The same could be said of the (mis)management of Pike River mine until disaster extinguished lives and capital and of Talley’s treatment of its meat workers — the Appeal Court ruled last week it had transgressed the Employment Relations Act which addresses employer-employee power inequalities.

The risk in this narrow view of corporate responsibility is that at some point the public, through elections and Parliament, clamps down, possibly very hard, with, say, high taxes, tight regulation and heavy fines.

In that event the good firms would operate less effectively and overall material welfare would be diminished, at a cost to everyone.

That is a similar risk to the one arising from the collateral damage economic globalisation has done to many in well-off countries. Globalisation enhances overall welfare but distributes (or doesn’t) the gains very unevenly.

That has provoked anti-trade populist responses. Errant — Trumpist, anti-social — capitalists might trigger similar populist responses if good capitalists don’t defend capitalism.

Well-managed capitalism in a liberal democracy has so far proved the most effective way of enriching whole societies.

But “well-managed” includes government management through well-designed regulation, including distribution. True enrichment is more than more stuff.

Did John Key’s flip dismissal last week of targets for reducing deprivation of children of necessities of life fit a true enrichment frame?

Capitalism would work better, and be more profitable, if those children had all necessities and grew up socially and economically productive.

That is, it would work better and more profitably if some proceeds were invested equitably in social cohesion.

Some firms get that. These firms are moving beyond a formulaic “social licence to operate” to acting on a recognition that they are an integral subset of a well-operating society, which is more profitable overall than a poorly-operating society.

Social cohesion requires good firms to take overt responsibility (including to themselves) to keep capitalism healthy and ensure bad firms don’t queer the pitch.

The destination to which the Trumps, Talleys and Pike Rivers are taking capitalism is towards political fractiousness, breakdown, revolution or even catastrophe.

Constructive reform is usually more productive than revolution and far preferable to catastrophe. But often that lesson is learned too late.