Today\’s story, of a teenage boy who badly burnt himself in an un-staffed tanning salon, only merited a few lines in most papers, but one comment offered a sharp insight into the state of modern capitalism.
Asked about the unfortunate incident, salon owner Steve James said that he could not afford to have staff on duty all the time if he was to remain competitive. He said: “I’m really disappointed this has happened. We are not operating illegally. If laws were passed to make all salons staffed all the time it would solve the problem.”
It is worth pausing over this statement. Mr James does not seek to defend his business practices on any grounds apart from their legality and the need to remain competitive. Indeed, in calling for legal changes, he implicitly acknowledges that, without tougher regulation, salons like his will operate in an irresponsible manner. In effect, he is saying: “There should be a law against us.”
You could hardly ask for a more damning indictment of contemporary capitalism. In an era of global and local competition, businesses cannot afford to let any moral considerations to dull their competitive edge. Conscientious entrepreneurs are cornered, and end up actively seeking regulation by the state, as their only defence against a relentless descent to the bottom line.
Consumer pressure, on sweated labour for example, can act as a gentle inhibitor of the worst practices, but shareholders will swiftly punish any working practices that raise costs (without a parallel boost to profits). Codes of conduct and self-regulation offer only uneasy stand-offs, which hold for as long as their least scrupulous member.
There is an irony here. After years of rolling back the state, building bonfires of red tape and so forth, businessmen like Steve James see state regulation as the only thing that can rescue them from the callous consequences of relentless competition.