A dozen years ago (give or take), I tried to commission a piece for Chronicles on how Big Business was increasingly pushing a leftist social and cultural agenda.  For years, the conservative orthodoxy in the United States had been that capitalist institutions, from mom-and-pop shops up to the largest corporations, were essentially conservative.  (In the oft-misquoted words of “Engine Charlie” Wilson, “[W]hat was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”)  Everyone agreed that the foundations set up by the scions of the great capitalist families—the Fords, the Rockefellers—funded leftist causes almost exclusively, but this, conservatives claimed, was a betrayal of their founding principles.  If the hard-nosed businessmen had maintained control of those funds, rather than letting that control pass to their effete socialite children, the story would be very different.

Except that it was clear (at least to me) that whatever truth was once to be found in the conservative orthodoxy (and I had my doubts about whether it had ever been all that true), the situation was changing rapidly.  Most mom-and-pop business were still essentially conservative (though perhaps for reasons that had little to do with the fact that they were businesses), but Big Business had a different agenda, which increasingly included (at that time) the promotion of homosexual “civil unions”—how quaint that term seems today!—and the expansion of state and federal antidiscrimination laws to protect homosexuals from religiously based objections in employment and housing.

The prospective author, a former senior editor for Forbes, seemed perfect for the task, because he was something of an iconoclast when it came to conservative orthodoxy.  After initially agreeing to write the article, he began to have second thoughts.  He just didn’t see it, he said; Big Business was mostly on the sidelines in the Culture War.  I gave several examples, especially of how Fortune 500 companies that had extended benefits to the “partners” of homosexual employees were agitating for state laws establishing civil unions, because that would force their competitors—large and small—to incur the same types of expenses that they had voluntarily taken on.  But that was just good business, the prospective author replied—which, of course, was precisely my point.

While mainstream conservatives were busy (in those halcyon days of the first term of George W. Bush’s administration) trying to come up with justifications for supporting civil unions in the vain hope of preventing gay “marriage,” Big Business had seen the writing on the wall.  Both for recruiting employees and for selling their products and services, it was better for companies to be regarded as “gay-friendly.”  But creating that image cost them money—money that their competitors weren’t spending—and thus they had sound business reasons to agitate for changes in employment law and state recognition of civil unions.

The prospective author ultimately understood my point, but in the end he declined to write the story, because he didn’t know how to argue against the logic of the businesses in question: They were only acting rationally—at least as “rational action” is defined in economics.

So here we are, a dozen years later (give or take), and as I watch the uproar over Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s decision to sign a state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), I regret not having written the piece myself when the prospective author declined, lo those many years ago.  True, I didn’t have his credentials, so it’s not only possible but quite likely that some readers wouldn’t have taken the article as seriously coming from me as they would have if it had come from him.  But that cuts both ways: Looking back at it today, the article would have seemed more surprisingly prescient, having come from a nonentity rather than from a former senior editor for Forbes.  And we at Chronicles have always said that we are writing for the ages, rather than for the moment.

Indiana’s RFRA, we are told, is the height of modern-day bigotry, as morally repugnant as any Jim Crow law ever was—perhaps even worse, since we live in a more enlightened age.  (Never mind that black business owners in Indiana, if national trends hold true, are almost certainly more likely both to identify as Christian and to act on their beliefs than their white counterparts, and thus are potentially more likely to benefit from Indiana’s RFRA.)  It surprises no one, of course, that the New York Times and the Washington Post and the pundits of the flailing MSNBC are up in arms about the backwardness of a state that pretty much defines the dismissive phrase “flyover country”; but the fact that so many national corporations have fired off Wabashing cannonballs has left even some vocal longtime supporters of gay “marriage” scratching their heads.  After all, as The Atlantic’s Conor Frieders dorf points out, “same-sex couples in 13 states are still prevented from marrying,” and Indiana ain’t one of them.  (The state’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman was struck down in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in June 2014; that ruling was upheld by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2014; and the next month, the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of the case.) “When 13 states prohibit gay-marriage outright,” Friedersdorf writes, “what sense does it make for gay-rights supporters to boycott a different state where gay marriage is legal?”

For those who regard “marriage equality” as a purely political matter, Friedersdorf’s question makes sense.  But the companies that have announced their plans to put pressure on Indiana to repeal the state’s RFRA, and the entertainers who have canceled concerts and comedy tours there, are simply acting as rational economic actors, as those Fortune 500 companies were a dozen years ago.  They know that the cultural tide has turned, and that those with more disposable income (no, that’s not code for homosexuals; it applies across the board) are more likely to support gay “marriage,” as are people between the ages of 18 and 34—those who have the most years of getting and spending still ahead of them.  Expressions of outrage over Indiana’s RFRA cost those companies and entertainers little or nothing, but may pay huge dividends in the future.

On the flip side, it simply isn’t economically rational for those same companies and entertainers to announce boycotts of, say, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan (all states that Friedersdorf notes do not allow gay “marriage”).  They know that those states’ traditional definition of marriage will fall soon, probably (as I predicted a decade ago, in the January 2005 issue of Chronicles) as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that relies heavily on the Full Faith and Credit Clause; and besides, the national media isn’t focusing on those recalcitrant states, so there’s no free p.r. wave to ride by attacking them.  In other words, it would cost them more to attack those states than to attack Indiana, and the potential economic benefit that they would derive would be considerably less.  They’re making their investments wisely.

This is also clearly the reason for Apple CEO Tim Cook’s alleged “hypocrisy” in taking to the Washington Post op-ed page to denounce Indiana’s RFRA, while operating stores in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexual acts are punishable by death.  As Jonathan Capehart pointed out in the Post on April 2, “Marriott International president Arne Sorenson and Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon also spoke out forcefully against the religious freedom bills in Indiana and Arkansas,” even though “Their companies operate in countries where being LGBT is illegal or punishable by death.”  But Capehart knows the score: “The Almighty Dollar reigns supreme in the publicly traded companies they run.  Their first responsibility is to shareholders who want growth in markets, dividends and profits.”  There’s no hypocrisy here: These companies are accomplishing the same thing by operating in Saudi Arabia and by blasting the backward hicks of Indiana.  It’s just business.

Almost 30 years before Engine Charlie uttered his famously misquoted statement, another conservative icon delivered a short speech that was destined to go down in history in bowdlerized form.  Yet 90 years later, what Silent Cal actually said on January 17, 1925, is as good an explanation as any of the reaction of business leaders to Indiana’s new law:

After all, the chief business of the American people is business.  They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.  I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.