Sunday, October 18, 2015

Give and Take

Somewhere along the way, people got the idea that maximizing investor return was the point. It shouldn't be. That's not what democracies ought to seek in chartering corporations to participate in our society.
Seth Godin, “What are corporations for?
What ought is rarely important when it doesn't line up with what is. Shareholder Primacy (or, one might even say Radical Shareholder Primacy) is the order of the day - and it is well-accepted enough that it's not going to go anywhere on its own. And we shouldn't expect it to.
There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.
Milton Friedman, “Capitalism and Freedom”
Now, it's important to not that Mr. Friedman was not advocating a society without social responsibility. But, and in this he is in line with most Libertarian thought, he was of the mind that this should be the prerogative of the shareholders of a business, not the managers of a business. You could look at it as a modern-day variation on the Parable of the Talents, as applied to business. The people who had put up the resources to build a business, and thus took the risk of it failing, are entitled to the best possible return on that investment, and corporate managers should not be diverting portions of that return away to activities that benefit parties other than the shareholders. Of course, Friedman caveats this with an admonition that the business remain within the rules of the game, and this creates a giant loophole - the legal framework that we currently have is not really considered conducive to "open and free competition," yet since certain anti-competitive (or even deceptive) practices are legal, they are considered "within the rules," allowing a certain level of having one's cake and eating it, too.

And this, in the end, becomes the issue, I think. We've created a legal and social framework that allows for a different set of rules than were originally envisioned. We do not simply charter corporations to participate in our society - instead, we allow them particular privileges that are not granted to other segments. For example - a corporation that decides that I owe them money can simply add fees and charges to that amount or report me to a credit agency without needing to resort to any outside agency, and condition my doing business with them on accepting this, and take the fact that I chose to do business with them as an acceptance - yet I may not do the same without receiving their explicit permission. And this "undemocratic" way of corporate participation is the issue - because it leaves the majority of us with no way to enforce the other side of the equation - the conditions that Friedman placed on corporations increasing their profits.

No comments: