Saturday, April 15, 2023

Corporate Political Responsibility in a Captured Economy

The social responsibility of business has been debated for years. One point of view follows Milton Friedman’s maxim, “In a free society … there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” Others argue for the priority of ESG values, even if they conflict with profit-making. A more pragmatic perspective sees ESG simply as a set of tools that facilitates risk assessment and enhances long-run profitability. 

The political responsibility of corporations has, unfortunately, received much less attention. Friedman himself alluded to political responsibility when he added the proviso that firms must “stay within the rules of the game” by pursuing profit through “open and free competition without deception or fraud.” Unfortunately, he failed to follow up by asking the critical question: In a free society, who makes the rules?

The rules of the game

There is little controversy about the basic rules of the game for free-market capitalism: respect property rights, compete openly and honestly based on price and quality, and follow common-law principles of fraud, nuisance, and negligence. The hot-button disputes over corporate political responsibility pertain not to the basic rules themselves, but to their application to issues that dominate the daily news, like environmental protection, railroad safety, or workers’ rights.