How MBAs should face Populism after HBS

The populist Marine Le Pen, 2017 French Presidential Candidate
John Hintze, Contributor

Populism is all the rage. One cannot help but hear about it, sought amongst the conversation which makes up polite society. Or even politer society, such as HBS.

In the last week of class, the Required Curriculum cohort had been learning about populism. It is something which has been threaded thoughtfully throughout BGIE, or the Business, Government and the International Economy course. At least in Section G.

But what do we mean by populism? When we hear the word ‘populist’, it tends to function more as castigation rather than a concept for analytical pursuit. Laced with moral fervor, few proudly wear its name.

In section, we settled on a few components. Populism involves some kind of appeal to ‘the common man’ or ‘the people’. In opposition to the people sit an elite. And in this appeal, a better world is possible with disregard to constraints or trade-offs, the subject matter of economics.

The status of whether a particular branch of economics, or indeed economics at all, as necessary for populism is an interesting one. In the USA, Trump and Sanders were both branded populists. Brandishing proposals that were sometimes mutually exclusive, they both promised growth. And as Paris Aslanidis argues in ‘Is Populism an Ideology? A Refutation and a New Perspective’ (Political Studies, 2015), 1990s Latin America witnessed the emergence of neoliberalism amongst populist platforms. This makes it harder to claim that in spotting particular economic policies, we can identify a populist. They may even take economics seriously.

One further interesting thought was on the possible similarities of populism to certain forms of idealism. Unity, solidarity: these things could be a togetherness which speaks to the possibility of overcoming great constraints – if only we hope. Behind this hope may be drafts with specific plans of attack, roadmaps which show that what we first believe to be trade-offs are not trade-offs at all. But things are not so easy. Keeping idealism away from a denial of constraints is part of the challenge of politics.

Leaving the Americas aside, populism is a spectre haunting Europe. That last week of RC involved cases on Brexit and 2017’s France. Under wide working definitions of populism involving economic isolationism, some may argue that Brexit does not have to be populist at all. Or, if it is at least some kind populism, maybe, amongst all the vitriol, it is a populism with which we can agree. Factors typically ascribed as necessary conditions, like economic protectionism, can be rejected if the UK chooses other economic channels and revised regulation. Immigration policy can now be more worldly and even. And even if the electorate’s motives may conspire upon something with which we disagree, the outcomes can be less continental and more internationalist.

This finicality, however, this careful exacting denial, may be accused of distinction without a difference. I am sure all Harvard MBAs can only, at this point, be thinking of the opening resemblance to The Communist Manifesto. ‘Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power? Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?’ Replace the apposite words with something relating to ‘populist’ and ‘populism’, and we may have the complaint.

‘What does populism have to do with me?’ I hear you ask. Well, as MBAs are constantly told, you are the elite. And just like with populism’s stance against elites, some may cast some moral castigations upon the degree. Accusations fly that business schools and associated institutions encourage graduates to cross moral boundaries. MBAs pursue the quest for golden handcuffs, ending up with something rather more steel.

Presented with this populism, and by implication, the wider political sphere, MBAs have a choice. And in BGIE, we resolved to reduce the option set to four main categories: focus on your business; find rent-seeking opportunities; fund politics; fund civil society. Each option comes with their going rates of accountability and efficiency, and with their competing moral virtues. But one cannot help but make a choice. So – ECs, who’ll never have to read my glutinous prose again, who now face the world with panache. I ask of you only this. Please face that choice with courage, goodness, and respect.

John Hintze (HBS ’18) is an RC from Section G. Prior to HBS, John was a visiting student at Harvard GSAS, and has worked in finance and political campaigning.