The critic who has the world's richest people buzzing says if we want to fix society's problems, we're asking the wrong people to do it

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty ImagesThe ‘Winners Take All’ author Anand Giridharadas.
  • Anand Giridharadas is an author and professor whose book “Winners Take All” is a scathing critique of the way elites treat philanthropy and “doing good” through business.
  • He argues that we have been looking too often to the private sector for solutions to structural problems that can be fixed only through policy changes.
  • This article is part of Business Insider’s ongoing series on Better Capitalism.

Business Insider’s Better Capitalism series is premised on the idea that our economy isn’t working as well as it could be and that corporations can and should play their part in achieving more of its potential by improving. The methods are open to debate.

In an interview with Business Insider, the “Winners Take All” author Anand Giridharadas explained one of his book’s main points, which is that having an approach to business that includes all stakeholders – employees, customers, and communities – can yield results but never to the extent that things are changed on a structural level. For that, he said, you have to have public solutions.

A former journalist and McKinsey analyst, Giridharadas spent five years as an Aspen Institute fellow before questioning the prevailing elite approach to “changing the world.” His book, published last fall, gained a second wave of interest when he emerged as a prominent critic of this year’s annual World Economic Forum meeting, held in Davos, Switzerland, in January. This month, Harvard announced him as the recipient of the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award for Humanism in Culture for his advocacy.

He gave us a hypothetical example to prove his point, borrowing some modern corporate speak:

“I think you and I would agree it would be weird if your approach to segregation in the 1940s in Alabama was to say: ‘Well, let’s create some points of light. Let’s create some white-owned restaurants that don’t mind having black people, and we’ll celebrate that, and we’ll give them a certification, and we’ll put them on magazines and on change-the-world lists. Let’s celebrate the good.’ I think that would actually rub you and me the wrong way. I mean, on the surface, what’s wrong with that? But it feels like a weird response to a problem that is necessarily systemic.”

He then gave a contemporary example, mentioning both the OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and the term “conscious capitalism,” coined by Whole Foods’ free-market libertarian CEO, John Mackey:

“It’s like saying, ‘OK, well, let’s have better healthcare companies that compete against OxyContin and are more responsible in how they prescribe.’ Again, I think you and I would agree that that’s just not going to work given the kind of problem the opioid crisis is, given the dynamics of addiction, the ways in which pharma companies have political power, the way the whole doctor-sales-rep process is so rigged. Having just better, nicer, conscious capitalism to compete against the others, it’s just not going to work.”

Giridharadas did explain, however, that there were certain ways he thought the private sector could assist.

He expressed doubt over the way the nonprofit B Lab could effect mass change on its own, through certifying companies that are holding themselves to higher standards. But he acknowledged that he was impressed with the way its founders had spurred public action, from states ratifying “benefit corporation” policies to Sen. Elizabeth Warren citing B Lab in the announcement of her Accountable Capitalism Act, which would build on the nonprofit’s ideas on a federal level.

Read more: How the cofounder of a basketball apparel company started B Lab

For Giridharadas, the primary problem is that the United States and Europe are increasingly reliant on the private sector – often large corporations or philanthropists – to solve society’s biggest ills. He said that for this moment in history, “making good” could have a demonstrative effect that leads to real change but that “it behooves us just as much if not more on making it harder to do something bad.”

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