Where Did Corporate Titans Go Wrong?

Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Bernie Ebbers, and Dennis Kozlowski — in the year 2000, all of these names had a very positive connotation. These men were hailed by Wall Street as some of the most successful corporate leaders in America. They each led multi-billion dollar businesses and they each had very bright futures. Today, they are all headed for jail.

Over the last couple of weeks we have been focusing on allegations of widespread corruption on Capitol Hill, but at the same time newspaper headlines have been detailing the court trials and convictions of some of America’s biggest CEOs for committing serious crimes. Embezzlement, money laundering, fraud, bribery, misappropriation, conspiracy, price fixing, insider trading — the list of crimes is almost as long as the list of names associated with corporate corruption.

Why are so many business leaders in America being convicted of such audacious crimes? What leads these rich, powerful men to risk so much? In a word — "greed"; more specifically, the love of money. In that respect, they really are no different from many others in our materialistic, consumer-driven society. Many Americans increasingly believe that there is nothing more important in this world than making more and more money and acquiring more and more "stuff." In the pursuit of money, some people are willing to forfeit even their integrity. They will push anyone aside, break every rule, tell any lie — whatever it takes to come out ahead financially. Lust for money is slowly perverting our capitalist system, replacing healthy competition with cutthroat greed.

Make no mistake about it, money is not evil in-and-of itself. Money is morally neutral. It can be used to build hospitals and help victims of hurricanes, or to buy heroin and hashish. It is no sin to be rich and no virtue to be poor. However, when we become enamored with money, when we seek money above all else, it can destroy our lives. No wonder the Scriptures say that, "…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, craving money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows." (1 Tim. 6:10)

One need look no further than the names at the top of this article to see how true this is! These men loved money so much that they were driven to lie, cheat and steal — anything for more, more, more. Now, as they reflect on life in jail, there can be no doubt that they have pierced themselves with many sorrows. They have lost the fortunes they built, they have torn families apart, they have been humiliated before the world, and in some instances the companies that they worked so hard to build lie in ruins. Today they would probably be the first to say that money is not the most important thing.

At the Center for a Just Society, we are strong supporters of the capitalist economic system. We believe in the value of free markets. However, when capitalism is unrestrained by moral scruples the result is often rapacious greed. A culture given over to consumerism and greed, where citizens see nothing more important than more money and more "stuff," is a very ugly place. Sweat shops, child labor, unsafe workplaces, exploitation of the poor, dangerous products — all are manifestations of a form of economic Darwinism that measures success solely in economic terms. All are emblematic of what happens when the love of money trumps everything else. Market mechanisms are very efficient, but they can also be costly to the disadvantaged and powerless. If we are to have a just society, market mechanisms need to be buffered with virtues like honesty, love, and unselfishness. If we are to have a just society, we must reclaim the moral code that once served as an important counter-balance to the excesses of capitalism.

When the Christian ethic that plays an important role in restraining the excesses of capitalism is dismissed as irrelevant, the end result is often "GUILTY" broadcast in bold letters in Wall Street Journal headlines. All of us do well to reflect on the words of Jesus, "If you have not been faithful with worldly wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches of heaven." (Luke 16:11) After all, our eternal security is even more important than our economic security.