In a time of crisis, what does business owe the public good? And what can the government require companies to do? If the crisis is deep enough, the answer to the latter question is: almost anything.

In his 1942 state of the union address, US president Franklin D Roosevelt proclaimed “overwhelming superiority of armament” a requirement for victory in the second world war. He ordered the construction of an astonishing 60,000 planes, 45,000 tanks, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns and six-million tonnes of shipping capacity that year. To reach those goals, the Office of Production Management banned the manufacture of passenger cars, diverting all of Detroit’s manufacturing capacity to the war effort.

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