Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman in the New York Times magazine proclaimed that the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits. Directors have the duty to do what is in the interests of their masters, the shareholders, to make as much profit as possible. Friedman was hostile to the New Deal and European models of social democracy and urged business to use its muscle to reduce the effectiveness of unions, blunt environmental and consumer protection measures, and defang antitrust law. He sought to reduce consideration of human concerns within the corporate boardroom and legal requirements on business to treat workers, consumers, and society fairly.
Over the last 50 years, Friedman’s views became increasingly influential in the U.S. As a result, the power of the stock market and wealthy elites soared and consideration of the interests of workers, the environment, and consumers declined. Profound economic insecurity and inequality, a slow response to climate change, and undermined public institutions resulted. Using their wealth and power in the pursuit of profits, corporations led the way in loosening the external constraints that protected workers and other stakeholders against overreaching.
Under the dominant Friedman paradigm, corporations were constantly harried by all the mechanisms that shareholders had available—shareholder resolutions, takeovers, and hedge fund activism—to keep them narrowly focused on stockholder returns. And pushed by institutional investors, executive remuneration systems were increasingly focused on total stock returns. By making corporations the playthings of the stock market, it became steadily harder for corporations to operate in an enlightened way that reflected the real interests of their human investors in sustainable growth, fair treatment of workers, and protection of the environment.
Half a century later, it is clear that this narrow, stockholder-centered view of corporations has cost society severely. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, the single-minded focus of business on profits was criticized for causing the degradation of nature and biodiversity, contributing to global warming, stagnating wages, and exacerbating economic inequality. The result is best exemplified by the drastic shift in gain sharing away from workers toward corporate elites, with stockholders and top management eating more of the economic pie.
Corporate America understood the threat that this way of thinking was having on the social compact and reacted through the 2019 corporate purpose statement of the Business Roundtable, emphasizing responsibility to stakeholders as well as shareholders. But the failure of many of the signatories to protect their stakeholders during the coronavirus pandemic has prompted cynicism about the original intentions of those signing the document, as well as their subsequent actions.
Stockholder advocates are right when then they claim that purpose statements on their own achieve little: Calling for corporate executives who answer to only one powerful constituency—stockholders in the form of highly assertive institutional investors—and have no legal duty to other stakeholders to run their corporations in a way that is fair to all stakeholders is not only ineffectual, it is naive and intellectually incoherent.
What is required is to match commitment to broader responsibility of corporations to society with a power …read more