THE recent annual spate of Nobel prizes led The Economist...

salmagundi

October 31, 1994

THE recent annual spate of Nobel prizes led The Economist to wonder why there isn't one for business. "That, many would argue, is only proper," the weekly said. "Great prizes should be awarded to the public-sprited, take account of the public good, reflect individual rather than collective merit.

"Business at first glance fails all these tests. Its practitioners are motivated by a selfish quest for wealth, which ought in turn to be its own reward. And corporate success is more often than not the achievement of whole firms, not the outcome of one person's courage, vision or virtuosity.

"Or so it seems. Yet there is less to these distinctions than meets the eye. Even if you allow that most people are tempted into corporate stardom by dreams of riches, surprisingly few retire to country estates as soon as they have made their pile.

"For many, the continued success of the firms that they create, save or enlarge becomes an end in itself, much as, for physicists, finding the top quark is an end in itself. And only someone wholly ignorant of modern science would argue that the pursuit of knowledge is unsullied by self-interest; petty ambition stalks the laboratory no less than it does the board room.

"As for the public good, the top quark has its charms, but for all anyone knows finding it is about as 'useful' as collecting butterflies. Successful businesses, on the other hand, create wealth, jobs and a cornucopia of desirable products and services."

The Economist similarly demolishes the other arguments it cited against a Nobel for business, recalling the prizes were founded by a businessman, Alfred Nobel. A pacifist, he was embarrassed that he had invented dynamite. It didn't occur to him, the magazine remarks, that other businessmen might benefit mankind. "Surely the world knows better now," it concludes.

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