Saturday, 7 November 2015

Are Profit-Motivated Businesses Bad For Society?

So in an article from a while ago we went through some of the benefits of privatisation- the main conclusion was that, in the main, privatisation leads to an increase in efficiency by replacing ambiguous, short termist political motives with one distinct motive- to make profit.

But this motive itself is one that is strongly debated over. Private businesses are pushed more than their state equivalents to turn over profits- but is this something that benefit those stakeholders outside of the company as well as those inside?

The pro-profit motive argument claims that free markets create environments that encourage profit-seeking competition. For example, in the British department store industry, which the state has little involvement in, competition is visible- Debenhams, John Lewis, House of Fraser and so on are competing to gain the highest profits. The contrary is perhaps visible in the British healthcare industry- the state-owned NHS dominates this market, and thus there is little (albeit growing) competition for profits in this sector.

Apple and Samsung's rivalry has brought
rapid advancements in mobile technology.
Though it is arguably not the only means to do so, market competition is key in bringing improvements and allocating resources efficiently in the economy. The global technology market has been a great example of this: Apple and Samsung have constantly been battling over the past 5-7 years over their mobile phones, and what has resulted is an unprecedented rapid development of mobile technology. Look at how far the iPhone, for example, has developed since its release in 2007. The current iPhone 6 is thinner, lighter and of better quality material than the original iPhone- yet it is decisively faster and more advanced. Competition with Samsung's 'Galaxy' phone drove Apple to proactively seek better technologies for every single generation of iPhone, which has brought us advancements in almost every aspect of the phone.
These companies have had to keep up with market demands- if they released a product few people liked (like the iPhone 5C), they would be damaged by it by a drop in their profits; they would by their competitors and over the long term marginalised, or even worse driven out of the market. RIM (producers of Blackberry phones) have seen this- they saw huge success in the 2000s but they failed to keep up when the iPhone came.
Apple and Samsung created huge advancements in the tech industry with the primary motive of chasing profits. They have shown the potential positive effects of profit-making motives.

However, this idea of competitive market democracy brought about by the importance of profits is not always appropriate.
An industry where there is a monopoly is one example of this- this company is desensitised to most activities of the market, because it has no competitors to protect itself against. More on the idea of the monopoly can be read in this past article.

Questions can also arise with regards to whether these motives work in certain areas of the economy. Healthcare, for example, is seen as something some see as a right to citizens of a developed country, rather than something they should have to pay for. Privatised healthcare in the USA has seen some rocky results. In principle it is a dangerous idea (what if you have a car accident and wake up to foot a bill you can't pay for?), and in reality it has followed suit. The cost of insurance (as these 21 graphs illustrate in detail) is far too much in comparison to other nations, meaning many in America aren't insured- and for these people a single health accident has the potential to destroy their lives not just health-wise but financially.
Private hospitals such as those in the USA face a dilemma- should their primary motive be to turn profits or heal patients? The answer is more often than not the former, resulting not just in the inflation of healthcare costs that we've seen but occasionally irresponsible behaviour- it's opened the door to doctors prescribing excess amounts of expensive medicines, suggesting unnecessary appointments; generally practices that are not so helpful to the patient but helpful to the hospital's finances.

The Big Mac: High margins, high calories.
Profit-seeking has had visible socially negative effects in the food industry- particularly in fast food. It is far easier for companies to cut down costs than to try to increase income, and born from this came much of the artificial junk food we see today. Healthy, organic food has become something of a premium in the food industry, as the influx of Big Macs, with their far higher profit margins, have dominated the fast food market. Seeking profits, companies such as McDonalds and Burger King have sacrificed quality in their products. They have sought to make a cheap (and not so cheerful) product that has damaging impacts on the healths of those who consume it, rather than making a product that adds genuine nourishment value to consumers. Financially, their current activity is incredibly sound- but in the real world? Not so much the case.

So while there is a valid argument for private profit-seeking opening up industries to market competition and all its benefits, this is something that is perhaps not applicable to the economy as a whole. With regards to healthcare, profit-seeking is a dangerous motive to have when the primary motive of any such establishment should be to cure their patients. Similar problems arise with fast food businesses, which damage the customer's health but bring in lucrative profits.
As it often is with economics, there is no straight answer. With different industries come different situations, and thus profit seeking has the potential to be both extremely beneficial and damaging to society as a whole.

Mohammad Lone Editor