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THE ANCIENTS AGAINST THE MODERNS:
FOCUSING ON THE CHARACTER OF CORPORATE LEADERS by George Bragues*

Abstract
When a series of corporate scandals erupted soon after the collapse of the 1990’s bull market in equities, policy makers and reformers chiefly responded by augmenting and refining the checks and balances around publicly traded corporations. Through measures such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, securities regulations were intensified and corporate governance was tightened. In essence, reformers followed the tradition of modern political philosophy, with its insistence that pro-social conduct is best produced through institutional mechanisms that harness self-interest.
The empirical evidence, however, suggests there is little promise that the modern approach of institutional reform will work to prevent future ethical breakdowns. Consequently, we look to another stream of political philosophy, the ancient tradition comprising Plato and Aristotle, which argues that social groupings, such as corporations, work best when led by individuals of good character. Applying the ancient view to modern commercial realities, Benjamin Franklin connects the development of virtuous character with self-interest, thus offering a compelling ethic for corporate leaders.

1. Introduction
The recent conflagration of corporate scandals – enveloping the likes of Enron, WorldCom, HealthSouth, Tyco, and Parmalat -- painted the picture of a corporate executive class running amok, flouting their legal and ethical obligations while systematically looting ordinary investors. Confronted with this pervasive pattern of unjust conduct, policy makers and corporate reformers could have responded to improve ethical standards in one of two ways.
One of these would have been to proceed from the assumption that the problem rested with people’s characters. On this view, the scandals occurred because individuals holding leadership roles in the corporate arena lacked an inner moral core to influence their choices, and instead let opportunism and self-interest, expressed in the love of money, entirely dictate their conduct. The lesson of the corporate scandals would then be the need to reform businessperson’s souls, to make them internalize the idea that money is not the end all and be all of life, but that that there are moral principles to which the pursuit of wealth must sometimes be sacrificed. The other alternative would be to change the institutions in which individuals operate, making little attempt to reform people’s psyches. Rather, individuals are accepted for what they are – which is to say, mostly selfish – and the emphasis is on changing the rules of the game to ensure that people’s interests are properly aligned to produce the outcomes that justice and morality requires.
The first approach emphasizing the character of leaders reflects the views of the ancient philosophers, of great thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. The second approach focusing on institutional structure is more in line with the modern philosophic tradition as typified in the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Bernard Mandeville, Adam Smith, Baron de Montesquieu, Immanuel Kant, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. Today, no discipline more fully embraces this conception of the appropriate way to design social systems than economics.
Partly because economists dominate the scholarly analysis of corporate activity, partly too because politicians find it easier to change laws rather than souls, the primary response to the corporate scandals tended to follow the principles of the moderns over those of the ancients. It is true that immediately after the scandals erupted observers pressed the need for corporations to adopt rigorous codes of business ethics. Figuring, however, that moral suasion would not adequately secure better behavior on the part of corporate elites, the loudest voices ended up being those calling for more regulation of corporations. Leading this charge was the corporate governance movement, a loose coalition of pension funds, labor unions, portfolio managers, and academics seeking to reorganize the distribution of power within corporations. Long before the scandals broke out, the corporate governance movement had been arguing that the structure of corporations was stacked against the interests of workers and ordinary investors. In a victory for this movement, the U.S. government in 2002 reacted to the corporate scandals by passing the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the most comprehensive reform of federal securities laws since the New Deal.
Structural reforms of the sort promoted by the corporate governance movement will do little to prevent the recurrence of widespread wrongdoing. The empirical evidence on added regulations is mixed at best regarding their efficacy, if not negative. While the modern paradigm has its merits, particularly in its reliance on market mechanisms, it needs to integrate some of the core ethical insights of the ancients. This means laying more emphasis on the character of business leaders, on instilling the practice of the
virtues in their managerial activities, as opposed to just steering them by a mixture of laws, regulations, checks, and balances. As any application of the ancient teaching must suit modern commercial realities, we will propose that business leaders be actuated by a set of bourgeois virtues, as articulated in the writings of Benjamin Franklin.
This paper will be structured as follows: section 2 will summarize the key points of contention between the moderns and the ancients regarding the promotion of moral conduct in societies; section 3 will demonstrate the modern view’s shortcomings by referring to empirical studies challenging the efficacy of popular corporate governance and regulatory measures as means to improve managerial behavior; section 4 will lay out Franklin’s efforts to promote the ancient ideal of character formation within the context of modern capitalism; section 5 concludes.

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