Rethinking the Social Responsibility of Business

A Reason debate featuring Milton Friedman, Whole Foods' John Mackey, and Cypress Semiconductor's T.J. Rodgers.

(Page 5 of 5)

Both capitalism and corporations are misunderstood, mistrusted, and disliked around the world because of statements like Friedman's on social responsibility. His comment is used by the enemies of capitalism to argue that capitalism is greedy, selfish, and uncaring. It is right up there with William Vanderbilt's "the public be damned" and former G.M. Chairman Charlie Wilson's declaration that "what's good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa." If we are truly interested in spreading capitalism throughout the world (I certainly am), we need to do a better job marketing it. I believe if economists and business people consistently communicated and acted on my message that "the enlightened corporation should try to create value for all of its constituencies," we would see most of the resistance to capitalism disappear.

Friedman also understands that Whole Foods makes an important contribution to society besides simply maximizing profits for our investors, which is to "enhance the pleasure of shopping for food." This is why we put "satisfying and delighting our customers" as a core value whenever we talk about the purpose of our business. Why don't Friedman and other economists consistently teach this idea? Why don't they talk more about all the valuable contributions that business makes in creating value for its customers, for its employees, and for its communities? Why talk only about maximizing profits for the investors? Doing so harms the brand of capitalism.

As for Whole Foods' philanthropy, who does have "special competence" in this area? Does the government? Do individuals? Libertarians generally would agree that most bureaucratic government solutions to social problems cause more harm than good and that government help is seldom the answer. Neither do individuals have any special competence in charity. By Friedman's logic, individuals shouldn't donate any money to help others but should instead keep all their money invested in businesses, where it will create more social value.

The truth is that there is no way to calculate whether money invested in business or money invested in helping to solve social problems will create more value. Businesses exist within real communities and have real effects, both good and bad, on those communities. Like individuals living in communities, businesses make valuable social contributions by providing goods and services and employment. But just as individuals can feel a responsibility to provide some philanthropic support for the communities in which they live, so too can a business. The responsibility of business toward the community is not infinite, but neither is it zero. Each enlightened business must find the proper balance between all of its constituencies: customers, employees, investors, suppliers, and communities.

While I respect Milton Friedman's thoughtful response, I do not feel the same way about T.J. Rodgers' critique. It is obvious to me that Rodgers didn't carefully read my article, think deeply about my arguments, or attempt to craft an intelligent response. Instead he launches various ad hominem attacks on me, my company, and our customers. According to Rodgers, my business philosophy is similar to those of Ralph Nader and Karl Marx; Whole Foods Market and our customers are a bunch of Luddites engaging in junk science and fear mongering; and our unionized grocery clerks don't care about layoffs of workers in Rodgers' own semiconductor industry.

For the record: I don't agree with the philosophies of Ralph Nader or Karl Marx; Whole Foods Market doesn't engage in junk science or fear mongering, and neither do 99 percent of our customers or vendors; and of Whole Foods' 36,000 employees, exactly zero of them belong to unions, and we are in fact sorry about layoffs in his industry.

When Rodgers isn't engaging in ad hominem attacks, he seems to be arguing against a leftist, socialist, and collectivist perspective that may exist in his own mind but does not appear in my article. Contrary to Rodgers' claim, Whole Foods is running not a "hybrid business/charity" but an enormously profitable business that has created tremendous shareholder value.

Of all the food retailers in the Fortune 500 (including Wal-Mart), we have the highest profits as a percentage of sales, as well as the highest return on invested capital, sales per square foot, same-store sales, and growth rate. We are currently doubling in size every three and a half years. The bottom line is that Whole Foods stakeholder business philosophy works and has produced tremendous value for all of our stakeholders, including our investors.

In contrast, Cypress Semiconductor has struggled to be profitable for many years now, and their balance sheet shows negative retained earnings of over $408 million. This means that in its entire 23-year history, Cypress has lost far more money for its investors than it has made. Instead of calling my business philosophy Marxist, perhaps it is time for Rodgers to rethink his own.

Rodgers says with passion, "I am proud of what the semiconductor industry does--relentlessly cutting the cost of a transistor from $3 in 1960 to three-millionths of a dollar today." Rodgers is entitled to be proud. What a wonderful accomplishment this is, and the semiconductor industry has indeed made all our lives better. Then why not consistently communicate this message as the purpose of his business, instead of talking all the time about maximizing profits and shareholder value? Like medicine, law, and education, business has noble purposes: to provide goods and services that improve its customers' lives, to provide jobs and meaningful work for employees, to create wealth and prosperity for its investors, and to be a responsible and caring citizen.

Businesses such as Whole Foods have multiple stakeholders and therefore have multiple responsibilities. But the fact that we have responsibilities to stakeholders besides investors does not give those other stakeholders any "property rights" in the company, contrary to Rodgers' fears. The investors still own the business, are entitled to the residual profits, and can fire the management if they wish. A doctor has an ethical responsibility to try to heal her patients, but that responsibility doesn't mean her patients are entitled to receive a share of the profits from her practice.

Rodgers probably will never agree with my business philosophy, but it doesn't really matter. The ideas I'm articulating result in a more robust business model than the profit-maximization model that it competes against, because they encourage and tap into more powerful motivations than self-interest alone. These ideas will triumph over time, not by persuading intellectuals and economists through argument but by winning the competitive test of the marketplace. Someday businesses like Whole Foods, which adhere to a stakeholder model of deeper business purpose, will dominate the economic landscape. Wait and see.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • John Schaffhausen||

    Being a former employee of Cypress Semiconductor for five of my 28 years in this industry, I can safely say that T.J Rodgers thinks nothing more than about his own personal gain "Period"! T.J. boasted about the amount of food donated to charity, although what he did not say was that the managers required their employees to contrbute to charities. As my former manager would tell me, "you are paid a lot of money to work here, so you must donate to our selected charities". This was not an option for the employees it was a requirement. The first time I handed my charity card back to my manager with a zero value it was returned to me with a please review this again and re-consider. When I told the manager I did re-consider and the answer was still "NO", the manager than stated that a one time donation of $5.00 is acceptable and than I would not have the monthly deduction. I re-affirmed my "NO" with a "ITS BASED ON A PRINCIPLE". The manager then took the card and handed in a differnet card with my name on it and $5.00 one time donation, so that his department met the 100% quota required by T.J. Rodgers. The first paystub that was given to me that should have not reflected any donations showed $5.00 donated to a charity. I spoke to HR about this situation and the $5.00 was returned to me on the next check.
    Now I ask you Mr. Rodgers, where are your morals, ethics and legal standards if this is the type of strong arming you require from your managers?

  • iriezorro||

    Thank you for this potent personal example. Hopefully the 'fans' of TJ below see that he is a hypocrite and in no subtle way in direct opposition to Friedmans' 1970 essay.

  • Haimerej||

    It seems to me that Friedman was correct in his assertion that the differences are rhetorical. I would say semantic. I believe that Friedman's philosophy has been perverted by his detractors because it relies upon individual choice and freedom. It opened the door to cynics to focus on the extreme negative aspects (inherent in ALL systems), which, IMO, ignores the fact that he constantly referred to the benefits of the system to the people that the detractors think it oppresses.

    It is in the "self interest" of Mackey to run a successful, profitable company. How else could he serve his desires of charity and "improv[ing] the health and well-being of everyone on the planet"? His "self interest" is helping others. People generally don't give to others if they don't want to, which serves a selfish desire to feel "good." Part of the reason his company is so successful is due to the public opinion of it. The company donating to charity is a self-interested venture, in that it influences public opinion by giving consumers the "selfish" feeling of satisfaction that their shopping contributes to charitable causes. This reputation Whole Foods has built increases their consumer base, which increases their profits, which increases the ability of Mackey to serve his self interest of philanthropy.

    The argument that it's not "driven" by a profit motive is fallacious. Take this statement, "While Friedman believes that taking care of customers, employees, and business philanthropy are means to the end of increasing investor profits, I take the exact opposite view: Making high profits is the means to the end of fulfilling Whole Foods' core business mission." That is semantics at best, fallacious at worst. Can you be profitable without doing what Friedman said? What profitable business doesn't cater to the customer? This argument ignores which came first, the business model or the profits? Obviously, he has a model that has proved extremely profitable.

    In closing, I believe Milton Friedman has been turned into a whipping boy of the left due to the manipulation of his philosophy with out-of-context quotation. This is a product of the "soundbite" culture we live in today. When Friedman said what he said, it was provacative. It was meant to be provacative. His mistake was perhaps giving people too much credit. Rather than making people say, "What does he mean by that?" today it makes people say, "What an evil man!"

  • Ray Ray||

    I just LOVE Mackey. Love him. Loved working at WF in high school. He has a point that IS sorta largely ignored by Libertarians, especially Rand fans- freedom means you can choose to build a company with whatever goals you have in mind. If whatever charitable donations he makes are pissed away and misused and never does anyone any good, and he has a warm squishy feeling inside, shareholders can go elsewhere. It's a voluntary arrangement.

  • RHP||

    Shareholders can also fire Mackey. It's a who works for who arrangement.

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  • netster007x||

    Milton Friedman is my favorite economic and political speaker. Mackey seems to know the right answer, but when he scorns Friedman's view as narrow and selfish, he really just adds fuel to freedom's detractors. I especially enjoyed TJ Rodgers' critique.

    I'm hoping to intern at Cypress.

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