The late Milton Friedman was famous for many viewpoints but one that stands out for me was his admirably blunt statement that the purpose of a business is to make money for the people who own it, not to advance some social, environmental, religious or other agenda. Period. A publicly-quoted firm on the London Stock Exchange or Wall Street should focus on making money for its shareholders. In a competitive market – key proviso – such a purpose will tend to work, as Adam Smith said it would 230 years ago, in the interest of the consumer and worker:
When I hear businessmen speak eloquently about the “social responsibilities of business in a free-enterprise system,” I am reminded of the wonderful line about the Frenchman who discovered at the age of 70 that he had been speaking prose all his life. The businessmen believe that they are defending free enterprise when they declaim that business is not concerned “merely” with profit but also with promoting desirable “social” ends; that business has a “social conscience” and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of reformers. In fact they are–or would be if they or anyone else took them seriously–preaching pure and unadulterated socialism. Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.
The doctrine of corporate social responsibility is very much on the march in Britain. Companies are increasingly encouraged to do things to help the environment and help local communities. My own firm encourages its staff to devote some time to voluntary work and sets aside time and resources for that end. Now, I have no trouble whatsoever with a firm that, with the consent of its owners – shareholders – decides to back certain causes so long as the shareholders realise that such activity could affect their shares either positively or negatively. So long as it is made explicit and the owners are allowed to decide yes or no. The problem starts to arise however when this doctrine is forced upon the business owners by state regulation. This is not simply a problem that can face listed companies; it can also potentially affect firms that are not publicly listed but owned, say, by a private equity fund or an individual.
One problem, I think, is limited liability laws. Such laws, one might argue, create a bit of a “moral hazard” problem in that the firm’s owners are less mindful of the harmfulness or riskiness of their decisions than if they were subject to the conditions that used to prevail under the old English Common Law. Might the reason that we have so much focus on the supposed social responsibilities of business stem in part from the idea that limitied liability is a privilege that carries responsibilities? Purist free marketeers might say that the logical step is to remove the privilege, but would the ability of firms to operate on a large scale, with all the advantages that can bring, come to an end without limited liability?
I am not sure about the answers to all these questions, which is why I ask them. I know that some libertarians and classical liberals, such as Sean Gabb, have posed the argument that limited liability is inherently contrary to a consistent free market doctrine, and that the creation of large corporations with certain immunities has actually created businesses that are increasingly indistinguishable from government. On the other hand, one might envisage how constraints on corporate liability might emerge without state legislation, although I confess I am not sure how this would work.