American Enterprise Institute Roundtable: Was Milton Friedman Right about Shareholder Capitalism?

In this look back at Milton Friedman’s famous essay in The New York Times 50 years ago organized by the American Enterprise Institute, three well-known panelists discussed whether executives should continue to be guided by Friedman’s oft-cited statement that the “social responsibility of business is to increase its own profits.” 

One pretext or prompt for this discussion is the Business Roundtable’s recent rethinking of the corporate mission, with its emphasis on all corporate stakeholders, employees and local communities as well as shareholders. Among the panelists, Marty Lipton takes the most enthusiastic view of this alternative to shareholder primacy. Now often identified as “stakeholder capitalism,” this alternative is embraced by Lipton as part of a “New Paradigm” in which large, universal owners act more or less in concert to pressure private companies to play a greater role in protecting the environment and lifting people out of poverty.

By contrast, fund manager Cliff Asness and former Bush advisor and Columbia Business School dean Glenn Hubbard find considerable relevance and resilience in the old shareholder paradigm. Hubbard, for example, emphasizes the impossibility of maximizing long-run value in highly competitive product and labor markets without taking care of all important stakeholders. And while sympathetic to the intent of the Business Roundtable—and the value of ensuring enough investment in corporate stakeholders—both Hubbard and Asness are troubled by the prospect of a corporate governance system trying to hold corporate managers accountable in a stakeholder-centric world.