I’ve written here previously on Conscious Bridge about the need for America to transcend the greed and selfishness which pervades our financial system. Recently, I came across an article which shined a light on one effort to move American business towards higher values – and the article introduced me to a new term which I thought captured my concerns perfectly: “market fundamentalism”.

The article is entitled “Can One Man Save American Business?” and comes from the latest issue of Psychology Today magazine. Click on the link and give it a read – it’s worth it. The piece details the efforts of Hitendra Wadhwa who teaches business at Columbia University. What the author of the item finds as unique is Wadhwa’s teaching business classes that focus not only on outer success but the importance of satisfying the inner life as well.

I appreciate the magazine highlighting this topic and applaud what Wadhwa is doing. Of course, one man alone will not “save American business” nor is what Wadhwa teaching unique  – except maybe at Columbia University! A number of other business teachers and writers have reminded us of the importance of melding our inner and outer needs so as to take our lives and our businesses to new levels of success – where success is defined by broader strokes than simply the bottom line.

Stephen Covey’s work was certainly focused in this direction as well as the enlightened teachings of Margaret Wheatley. One could even make a case that the research and writings of Jim Collins in books such as Built to Last and Good to Great move us in the same direction. All of their writings have continued highlighting the importance of “effectiveness” and enduring financial success while also encouraging us to consider such touchy-feely items as “vision” and “core values”.

So what is meant by the term “market fundamentalism” and why is transcending that of importance? In the Psychology Today article, it uses that term to mean “a belief that as profits are secured, all else will follow – jobs, industry health, income equality, even the integrity of the environment.” Although those outcomes sound good on the surface, there is much evidence that an exclusive faith in profits does not necessarily lead to those desired goals and in many cases leads to negative outcomes.

In recent years, America has seen a growing in equality between the haves and the have-nots and shrinkage of the middle class. In addition, the focus on profits has led to the use of questionable methods and in some cases outright fraud in efforts to maximize income. Consider Enron or the Wall Street greed in the financial meltdown of 2008.

There are some interesting observations in the Psychology Today article.

First, it points out that the emphasis of American businesses can be found in their mission statements many of which focused solely on creating value for their shareholders. The author notes  that such a focus ignores the interest of anyone else – workers, customers or society at large.

Second, it describes a scientific study showing that it is difficult for people to simultaneously value enhancing their own profits while valuing the needs of people outside their group – that is, when greed rises – generosity falls – and vice versa. This quote from Tim Kasser of Knox College is telling: “to the extent that a business leader becomes increasingly focused on maximizing profit, there’s a corresponding decline in a focus on the good of the community.”

Most of us are familiar with the use of the term “fundamentalism” as it relates to the various religious faiths. One is considered a fundamentalist when one adheres to a strict orthodox doctrine to its exclusive acceptance and can recognize no other valid spiritual paths. For instance, the Christian fundamentalist accepts that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and is to be followed based upon a strict interpretation – their interpretation, of course. Taken to its extreme, such fundamentalism can lead to persecution and violence against those with different beliefs.

Similarly, a market fundamentalist has accepted a package of beliefs that says there is no other path to economic prosperity than an unbridled market free to maximize profits. Taken to its extreme, such fundamentalism could lead to the massive reduction of any governmental oversight of businesses and an elimination of the social safety net.

Individuals familiar with Spiral Dynamics will recognize that such extreme religious fundamentalism represents a severe and limited side of the traditional worldview (blue meme) while extreme market fundamentalism represents a similar limitation of the modern worldview (orange meme). The key, of course, in our evolution is to learn and take what is of value from each worldview and move to a higher level of consciousness. In Ken Wilber’s terms, we “transcend and include” – transcend our current level of consciousness while including and retaining what’s best from it as we evolve to the higher state.

There is much of value we can take from our religious traditions. There is much of value we can take from the gifts of modernity and capitalism. But, we humans, are called to something greater than simply “maximizing profitability”. Somewhere inside us, we know this.

Kudos to Psychology Today and Hitendra Wadhwa for their efforts towards moving us in the direction of melding outer success and inner success. Combining the two brings us closer to a state of wholeness. Although no one individual person is going to “save American business” – or move us to the next step on our evolutionary path – such goals are attained only through the efforts of individuals – you and me.

Each of us in our individual choices can transcend the greed and selfishness of “market fundamentalism” while including the gifts of prosperity and abundance that the marketplace offers us and in so doing create a greater world where we all can thrive.

Mark Gilbert

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Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books—available at Amazon. Click here to visit his Author Page. This includes his recent one Our Spiritual Rights and Responsibilities. In this book, he offers what he suggests are the 5 basic rights we all possess by virtue of our being these spiritual beings on planet Earth — and our 2 responsibilities we all hold in relation to one another! Check it out!