Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Nobel Peace Prize and the Chicken Sandwich

The next Nobel Peace Prize should go to Truett Cathy. That may seem just nuts, but think about it:
What is this prize supposed to commemorate? According to the criteria from the official Nobel Committee in Oslo: 
"In addition to humanitarian efforts and peace movements, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded for work in a wide range of fields including advocacy of human rights, mediation of international conflicts, and arms control." 

It's easy to think of "humanitarian efforts" in terms of charity or social movements; consider Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, for instance. But what about actions that have humanitarian effects, fully intended by their authors, which depend neither upon charity nor government and which are part and parcel of someone's livelihood? 

What has Cathy done? First, he invented a business model that provides tasty food, at a reasonable price, in a clean and pleasant atmosphere. This alone is no small accomplishment. Think about it. Have you ever seen a dirty Chick-fil-A? Have you ever had to deal with a Chick-fil-A employee who was surly or incompetent? Now think about any other fast-food outlet. See?
Why does this matter? Because Chick-fil-A is profitable, and therefore self-supporting. The company grows because people want to eat there, not because of government compulsion or plays on people's sympathy, however well founded.

Fine, but why does profitability qualify the founder for an award based on moral stature? Why is Cathy more deserving than Steve Jobs, Arthur Blank, Bill Gates or any other successful entrepreneur? It doesn't, by itself. It's the way Cathy's firm makes its money that matters. First, his business model makes becoming a franchisee easier, financially, than any other chain's. Five thousand dollars and a lot of hands-on individual effort will do it. That means that a lot of people otherwise unable to achieve financial independence can be successful through their own work. They're not bound to the ups and downs of political parties, not subject to the Dilbert-world inanities of corporations or government agencies. They're free.

Second, their business practices provide both opportunities and role models for young people. Kids get training not only in the specifics of fast food but in the more important areas of competence, responsibility and social relationships. They have real opportunities for advancement and education via company provided scholarships. Note, too, that these benefits do not depend on race, religion, sex, sexual preference or anything but ability and a desire to achieve. For very many minority students this may represent their only alternative to a culture of dependence and violence.

Sure, Chick-fil-A has charity initiatives, locally and nationally. They also sponsor a bowl game. That's all fine, but to me that doesn't matter as much as the fact that social benefit is built into the structure of their business.

They're closed on Sunday. So what? Their franchisees aren't forced to go to church---any church. They can visit the beach, attend a ball game, watch TV or sleep all day. What matters is that on Monday they're at work.

The Cathy family supports "traditional marriage." Again, so what? I'll bet Mother Teresa would have, too.

They treat each employee and each customer with dignity and respect. They don't coerce support for political candidates or policies, the way too many businesses and unions do. 

What Chick-fil-A does is serve chicken, fries, tea, milkshakes, cookies and so forth well and affordably, making people happier and more prosperous by doing so. They do all that without special dispensations or subsidies, without creating a burdensome bureaucracy, and without competing with charities for donations.  I can't think of anything these days more deserving of a Peace Prize than that.

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