How did we get from profit to profiteering?

How did we get from profit to profiteering?

A conversation with Chris Marquis about his new book, 'The Profiteers - How business privatizes profits and socializes costs'


got in touch recently to tell me about his new book, The Profiteers, I was immediately intrigued by it’s subtitle, ‘How business privatizes profits and socializes costs’. I wanted to know more so Chris sent me a pre-release electronic copy to read and kindly agreed to talk to me to about some of the ideas explored in the book.

We recorded our 40 minute conversation in which we talked about many aspects of this topic, including;

  • the extent to which corporations are externalising costs

  • whether it was always this way

  • who should solve the problem

  • the strange dynamics of giving legal personhood to businesses

  • the unexpected origins of the term “meritocracy”

  • and hopes for a positive future

The result is this - my first ever dedicated audio post here on Substack.

Click play above to listen in full, or read on for a few more thoughts from me.

Levelling the playing field

Early last year I wrote an article asking whether profit is the problem. I attempted to explore what exactly we mean by profit and whether it is the driver of corporate irresponsibility. Chris takes this a step further in his new book by asking us whether there is a line between profit and profiteering.

The Cambridge English dictionary defines profiteering as “the act of taking advantage of a situation in order to make a profit“. The implication here is that this refers to unethically taking advantage rather than simply being opportunistic, and this is what Chris’ new book is all about.

Whatever our views on the ethics of making profit, I think that most people would agree that there is a line between honest and dishonest profits. Chris presents the case that there are essentially two types of businesses operating in two parallel systems. There are those who play by the rules of the game set out for them by governments and the moral boundaries of our culture, and there are those that use underhand techniques such as greenwashing, lobbying, political donations and tax avoidance to tilt the playing field in their favour. By doing so, the second group gain an unfair economic advantage to obtain profits that they would not otherwise have gained.

Some might look at this and ask why it matters, but the money has to come from somewhere and in many cases it is the public who are paying. Chris suggests that this could be considered “blatant theft of public resources”, as tax revenues are effectively stolen and funnelled into shareholders’ pockets, and the costs of environmental and social issues created by these businesses are paid for by governments rather than the companies themselves. In some cases, if large corporations were forced to pay the true costs of their own operations, instead of making large profits they would actually be making a loss.

So how do we level the playing field?

Chris has spent much of his career exploring this complex challenge and is honest that there is no simple answer, but he does offer us hope. He suggests that it needs to be tackled from every side and that progress is already being made, even if it sometimes feels slow. He highlights the work of businesses that are actively trying to play fair and create more responsible, even regenerative business models, as well as governments such as the EU working to tighten regulation to make it harder for corporations to ignore their own responsibilities. And that’s not to mention the role of activists and customers who demand better and create pressure on businesses to clean up their own act and play fair. Underpinning all of this, we’ll need a cultural shift in what we view as acceptable behaviour from businesses.

Looking to the future, we can hope that our culture will evolve to look beyond shallow CSR metrics and look holistically at an organisations core business model to gauge it’s ethics. Hopefully, we’ll one day see a future where the financial aim of business is to make an honest profit, not profits at all costs, and where the core purpose of every business is to earn that profit by making a positive contribution to society.


Chris Marquis is the Sinyi Professor at the University of Cambridge Judge School of Business. He is the author of two previous books, Better Business: How the B Corp Movement is Remaking Capitalism and Mao and Markets. I also featured him in my earlier post, Are we stuck in a sticky web?.

His latest book, The Profiteers will be available for purchase from 14th May 2024. You can pre-order the book with 35% off until 30th April using the details on Chris’ Substack here.

I’d also love to hear what you think of the audio post format. Would you like more of these moving forward? Let me know in the comments. And as always, do click like and share this post if you enjoyed it.

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Tom Greenwood