Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman Accused of Making Corporations Greedy

The New York Times touches on an old intra-libertarian debate over corporate responsibility.


The New York Times brings you news that's news to you: Before evil libertarian Milton Friedman came along, corporations did nothing but help the people in pursuit of "social responsibility."

This is the implication of an overkill series of think pieces and a roundtable hooked to Friedman's essay "The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits," which the Times itself ran in 1970. The newspaper now insists, without rigorous evidence, that this article was "arguably the most consequential economic idea of the latter half of the 20th century." (It also argues that businesses are now turning against the idea that their only social responsibility is to their shareholders.)

It would require a lot more facts and analysis than the Times chooses to present to prove that corporations decided in the past 50 years to try to make profits their main concern because of a New York Times article by an economist. People starting and running businesses have traditionally done so to make a living and to make the business do well; attributing this to Friedman's "theories on the primacy of shareholders and the priority of profits" requires more business history and social history than the paper is able to do.

The paper does quote Marc Benioff of Salesforce, angry at Friedman, claiming that in business school in the 1980s Friedman somehow uniquely imbued a generation with the idea that business should be focused on profits. This feels underargued, as does Benioff's insistence that "obsession with maximizing profits for shareholders has brought us: terrible economic, racial and health inequalities; the catastrophe of climate change."

In one contribution to the package, Kurt Andersen, the formerly witty editor of Spy magazine, darkly warns that libertarians like Friedman bamboozled liberals by playing on their affection for the idea of freedom. He widens his attack beyond the specifics of the "corporate social responsibility" anniversary news hook to angrily presume that somehow government is doing a lot less to manage American wealth and choices than it was 50 years ago and that Aquarian Age dumbos hypnotized by the belief that people should be free to be you and me, man, allowed this to happen by elevating Friedman and his libertarian hordes to control of the world.

Andersen also thinks that "Theory of the Firm," a much-cited 1976 journal article by Michael C. Jensen and William H. Meckling that operationalized some of Friedman's ideas, shaped the world because it has been so widely cited in other academic articles, which is at least something toward trying to prove the package's point, but perhaps not everything. Andersen concludes by blaming Friedmanism for many corporations' propensity these days to spend money propping up their own stock prices.

Reason ran 15 years ago a roundtable hashing over these same issues on the article's 35th anniversary.  Many of the points that various Times contributors made this week were already made in our pages then.

John Mackey, founder and CEO of Whole Foods, argued that there were other stakeholders involved in doing business in America whose needs should also be tallied, including "customers, employees, suppliers, and the community. Each of those groups will define the purpose of the business in terms of its own needs and desires, and each perspective is valid and legitimate."

Mackey suggested that some of Whole Foods' philanthropy, such as "5 percent giveaway" days to local charities, actually attracts customers. Lest Friedmanites accuse him of taking food from the mouths of his poor investors, he notes that those investors should be well aware that the company doesn't do everything it can to maximize profits and willingly chose to invest anyway. (Not even Friedman would argue that some investors might not choose to invest in such a company, even if he believed it should never be insisted on as a corporate duty.)

Mackey also bragged about the high level of profits his company still managed to make with this perspective. He called on an older "free market authority" than Friedman, Adam Smith, to argue that "human nature isn't just about self-interest. It also includes sympathy, empathy, friendship, love, and the desire for social approval. As motives for human behavior, these are at least as important as self-interest. For many people, they are more important."

In Friedman's contribution to the Reason roundtable, he told Mackey that there was little disagreement between them but rhetoric, and that much of Whole Foods' philanthopy obviously did help its bottom line. That said, Friedman added it's hard to know whether any resources that Whole Foods shifts to a charity "would do more good for society than investing that stream of profit in the enterprise itself or paying it out as dividends and letting the stockholders dispose of it." Such corporate charity, he said, "makes sense only because of our obscene tax laws, whereby a stockholder can make a larger gift for a given after-tax cost if the corporation makes the gift on his behalf than if he makes the gift directly."

Mostly, Friedman just didn't believe centralizing that giving with corporate boards is any way to guarantee true overall social benefit: "Maximizing profits is an end from the private point of view; it is a means from the social point of view," he wrote in the Reason roundtable. "A system based on private property and free markets is a sophisticated means of enabling people to cooperate in their economic activities without compulsion; it enables separated knowledge to assure that each resource is used for its most valued use, and is combined with other resources in the most efficient way."

Friedman here was rather narrowly focused on the question of using corporate money to give to charity, as opposed to the larger question of whether corporations should just not make certain choices that earn them money if those choices could be seen as harming people outside their shareholders. Such choices might involve hiring decisions, pollution, and decisions about where to locate their businesses.

The third contributor to our roundtable, T.J. Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductors, posited that it is "simply good business for a company to cater to its customers, train and retain its employees, build long-term positive relationships with its suppliers, and become a good citizen in its community, including performing some philanthropic activity," Rodgers wrote. "When Milton Friedman says a company should stay 'within the rules of the game' and operate 'without deception or fraud,' he means it should deal with all its various constituencies properly in order to maximize long-term shareholder value. He does not mean that a company should put every last nickel on the bottom line every quarter, regardless of the long-term consequences."

Rodgers saltily wondered: "Why is it that when Whole Foods gives money to a worthy cause, it serves a high moral objective, while a company that provides a good return to small investors—who simply put their money into their own retirement funds or a children's college fund—is somehow selfish?"

Rodgers also challenged those who believe what corporations generally do—sell goods and services that people choose to consume to make their lives better, providing jobs while doing so—is not in itself a "social good." He asked Mackey to contemplate all the good we get from the cheap and abundent semiconductors that Rodgers' company makes and sells. This wonderful result, he said, came about because his industry is "focused so relentlessly on increasing its profits, cutting his costs in the process."

In any case, there certainly are things for a consistent libertarian to question in Friedman's original article, particularly his belief that pollution—which imposes harms on others—is something corporations should care about only as much as the law requires them to. But this idea that he introduced a new and pernicious idea to American business culture is…underproven.

NEXT: Federal Regulations Have Made Western Wildfires Worse

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  1. In one contribution to the package, Kurt Andersen, the formerly witty editor of Spy magazine, darkly warns that libertarians like Friedman bamboozled liberals by playing on their affection for the idea of freedom. He widens his attack beyond the specifics of the “corporate social responsibility” anniversary news hook to angrily presume that somehow government is doing a lot less to manage American wealth and choices than it was 50 years ago and that Aquarian Age dumbos hypnotized by the belief that people should be free to be you and me, man, allowed this to happen by elevating Friedman and his libertarian hordes to control of the world.

    “Everything bad that’s ever happened in this world is the fault of libertarians who secretly rule the world so that they can leave everyone alone.”

    Let this also be a reminder that progtards hate libertarians even more than they hate RethugliKKKans.

    1. I don’t know. Seems like a lot of progtards barely know libertarians exist. And my progtard friends that I can still stand to be around seem to have a lot more tolerance for me than for a more stereotypical right winger type.

      1. The proggie Venn diagram consists of proggie/not proggie. Distinctions on the not proggie side are discarded.

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      2. That’s because libertarians are not a political threat. When we bubble up as a threat watch the difference in their attitudes.

    2. They don’t know what libertarians are. How can they hate something they can’t even identify?

      1. They know we’re evil because they FEEL it. Just ask Tony.

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    5. I find I have very little agreement with progs, but much more in common with traditional (1960s) liberals. I think the progs’ ill will to us is due to their being authoritarian. They are not like the “free to be you and me, man” crowd. They subscribe to the idea of “leaders will fix everything if you give the right leaders full control.” No wonder they prefer even arch conservatives to the us.

  2. Here’s an idea. Maybe the people who control a business get to decide what the purpose of the business is. Then see who manages to accomplish what.
    It looks to me that more good for more people has been done through running businesses primarily for profit than any kind of charity or social justice BS.

    1. NOOOoooo!! You can’t just be free to do what you want with your own time and money! You might choose to not do what I want you to~!

    2. ‘When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong, every single time.’

      The mantra of every progressive’s wet-dreams: “If I was in charge…”

  3. Yeah I believe ultra left wing progtards at the NYT probably see Capitalism and Freedom much the same way I see the Communist Manifesto. I don’t expect dishonest journos to write anything except trash so their opinions are meaningless to me. That Reason even bothers to quote that steaming pile of garbage is telling.

    1. Telling if what?

      1. Telling if you could type 🙂

        1. My kingdom for an edit button!

          I just realized something. My net worth is zero! How awesome is that? I’ve tipped that point where I own more than I owe! Yay me!

    2. Seems someone is having some reading comprehension problems.

      How about this. Reason has always been a huge advocate of the ideas of Milton Friedman. Is it possible that they are commenting on what the NYT is writing about him to show how many enemies he has?

      Now for some Princess Naomi Klein fan to came here to promote the canard about how Milton Friedman was an advisor to Augusto Pinochet.

      1. Even in his grave there are people slandering him.

    3. Seems to me it’s a good thing to keep an eye on what your political opponents are doing and saying.

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  6. The Nyt lied and misinterperated history for their political purposes? Say it ain’t so Joe. My whole world is shattered! I am shocked, SHOCKED I tell you. Oh the humanity. Oh woe is me. The rose colored glasses have come off! We have seen behind the curtain! Insert other platitude here. We are now through the looking glass

  7. Essay “1970” can go right into the dustbin along with “1619”.

    “All the news that’s fit to bin”

  8. “obsession with maximizing profits for shareholders has brought us: terrible economic, racial and health inequalities; the catastrophe of climate change.”

    Jesus Christ, this is the same goddamn argument that if it weren’t for government regulation corporations would cheerfully poison their customers for a nickel. Which probably tells you more about the person making the claim than actual corporations – it’s not in a corporation’s best interests to poison their customers to death.

    It’s the same with the idea that corporations are going to put profits over social responsibility – to the extent that social responsibility raises a corporation’s profits, they sure as hell will prioritize social responsibility. Have you not noticed the number of corporations bragging about how green they are, how diverse and inclusive they are, how much they support all the right social causes, what charities they proudly sponsor? You think they’re doing that in the hopes that it will decrease profits?

    What Friedman was criticizing was the giving away of money by corporate boards whose money it was not. A corporations profits are the stockholders, not the corporate boards. If you want to be generous, be generous with your own goddamn money, not someone else’s. But sure, if you’re going to donate money to a good cause and then brag about what a bunch of good people you are for doing nice things, well, that’s just an advertising expense. But as with other advertising expenses, you’d better be able to show you’re getting a good return on your investment. To that extent, you’re just virtue-signalling, but if virtue-signalling increases your profits, it would be an abdication of your fiduciary duty not to virtue-signal.

    1. There is a bit of chicken and egg problem though. Because there has been little to no pushback against the Social Responsibility marketing schtick, it is now becoming expected that a company engage in these marketing efforts. Pretty soon, if big companies don’t publish “Diversity Action Plans”, it will be considered proof of their inherent evil.

      This was at least part of Friedman’s critique- that we continue to move down this path of expecting that companies spend a significant amount of time and treasure pursuing these goals.

      At my company, they practically force employees to take a day off each quarter for volunteering. I’d be happy if they just allowed it, but they force us to go to a portal and sign up for some volunteer effort that has been sponsored by the charity board. It is a waste of time and energy.

      1. My company does the same, but we make it more team building and we all go out drinking in our little service groups after. That it gets you a “good corporate neighbor” checkmark is certainly marketing, but it doesn’t have to suck for the people that perform the volunteer service.

        The volunteering activities, and there are around fifty to choose from include chaperoning a field trip to a museum, refereeing sports for a school event, or planting greenery at the park. It’s not “wear this name tag and hand out food at the homeless shelter” – unless you choose that one. Instead of the regular day of office drudgery you get a day at the museum and finish with drinking in the afternoon.

    2. And all those inequalities were far worse before the industrial/capitalist age. Before that, the haves and have nots weren’t even in the same world for practical purposes. Maybe the playing field isn’t perfectly level, but at least most people are on the same field now.

  9. It means pretty much the opposite of what they claim, and only the NYT doesn’t know that.

  10. The problem with divorcing the mission of the corporation from the service of the shareholders’ financial interests is that it leaves the corporation de facto serving the interests of senior management. Profitability is an objective measure that managers can be judged against. “Social responsibility” or “stakeholder interests”? That can be anything management deigns convenient at the moment, often with no objective measures to judge against or prioritize consistently. It’s an open invitation to the agency problem.

  11. Lost on these Marxist dumbos is the fact that considering customers increases profits (low prices / quality goods). As does considering employees (reducing high turnover costs) suppliers (providing consistency and reducing uncertainty), and the community (branding and PR).

    These dumdums simply despise anyone making a living and saving their earnings.

  12. Of course, businesses that don’t make a profit tend to go out of business, and don’t pay taxes, nor do their out-of-work employees, but Liberals don’t seem to understand that taxes depend on income.

    1. Only if you rely on incom tax, which libritarian should be opposed to. If you create value you should not be punished for it.

      1. Value-added taxes?

  13. I wish that libertarians were as influential as the lefty media pretends. _Slate_ and _Salon_ also play up the libertarian threat to all that is progressively woke.

  14. How’s Xerox doing? The original “woke” company? ha ha ha

  15. Of course the altruist new fascisti are attacking Friedman! Duh. His only mistake was to ignore how confiscation, libels, padlocking, fines and tax liability used in prohibition enforcement produced sharp contractions in the 1920-22 and 1929-33 Crash-Recession phenomena. His “Great Contraction” chapter (with Schwartz) is available on Kindle and delivers the blinkered analysis favored by the government confiscating the assets and wrecking the banking system at the time. Only Clark Warburton ran a better analysis.

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  17. Profits are good.
    Profit is the difference between the value society places on a good or service, and the cost to society to produce that good or service.
    Firms that maximize profits are the ones producing more of what society values at lower cost.
    Firms that are more profitable than their competitors accumulate more capital for new investments, and can bring their superior and more efficient management to new products and services.
    Firms that are bad at creating things of value, or that consume too much in resources while producing them, are doing society a disservice and are best left to lose out in the marketplace.

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  19. If all it takes is one opinion piece published in the New York Times to make every corporation change its strategy, then why hasn’t the New York Times editorial staff taken over the world yet?

    1. Well, the NYT is a corporation, so by definition it is evil and everything it does is evil. An social responsibility it may show is just a cynical facade as it tries to greedily chew up its customers. Hence, no one should ever listen to anything the NYT says.

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  21. Democrats hate libertarians because they have less in common with us than Republicans.

    D’s and R’s about who gets to grow the state and what that state looks like, and debate within accepted parameters.

    On the other hand, if you come in threatening the growth of the state, the entire system turns on you: D’s and R’s, judges, the media, the MIC, crony capitalists, etc.

    By the way, that’s also why Donald Trump has received the reaction he’s gotten from day one: he’s not really a Republican. He’s an outsider.

    Remember when Hillary claimed she landed in Kosovo or some shit, running and ducking under sniper fire, and it was completely self-serving bullshit, no one cared?

    And remember how, on day one, Trump was a liar because he said his inauguration crowd was too big? At least his inauguration really happened in the first place.

    They circle the wagons and protect themselves from outsiders. Libertarians are outsiders.

    And that’s why I can both defend Trump and dislike a lot his policies. I may disagree with him, but I can also see bullshit for what it is.

    1. ^100%
      same here. We are the real woke ones!

    2. Absolutely agree. It’s also the driving force behind states, red or blue, putting up as many obstacles for third party ballot access. There are some states, Wisconsin and Ohio come to mind, where it seems almost impossible for third parties to get on any statewide ballots. R’s and D’s may not agree on much but the both agree that nobody else should join the game.

  22. the larger question of whether corporations should just not make certain choices that earn them money if those choices could be seen as harming people outside their shareholders. Such choices might involve hiring decisions

    Really? How do “hiring decisions” ever “harm people”? Come on, “libertarian magazine writer”, please explain this!

    1. Someone’s got to pay those new employees, thus reducing profits and the potential of other employees to get more promotions and raises. Duh.

  23. (It also argues that businesses are now turning against the idea that their only social responsibility is to their shareholders.)

    While true this highlights exactly the problems Friedman’s understanding prevents. Once profitability is removed as management’s responsibility and goal what replaces it? Supporters assume the replacement is positive. But in reality we’ve already seen businesses adopt divisive and retributive political agendas in place of profits as when Google managers admitted blackballing non-leftists from their teams. There are many other examples including Brendan Eich’s firing and the Boeing executive recently fired for his opinion on women serving in the military. Other efforts like the ongoing far left war using trans people and POCs as props will result in wasteful spending on training and policing while also undermining the teamwork ethos necessary for best running a business.

    These managers not only placed their personal political preferences ahead of the company achievement by inappropriately limiting their hiring pool they also exposed the company to expensive litigation and judgments. Bringing the culture war into business creates expensive oversight and distracts the business focus from production to politics. Once profits are removed as the primary goal individual managers can and have asserted their preferences are executing social responsibility as allowed. This makes it very tough to root out.

    Obviously this benefits the left with its decades long adoption of the mantra “the personal is political” and efforts to politicize everything. But this is a substantial deviation from the American ethos and people should oppose it. The best way to achieve this is to ensure businesses remain solely focused on profits.

  24. It is a matter of historical fact that between 1933 and 1980 corporations were far more responsive and responsible to public needs and the public interest. An early example of this can be found in the Container Corporation of America magazine ads that were advocating the recycling of paper and cardboard products in the 1930’s! And the entire corporate structure of the USA was mobilized, with civilian rationing, in World War 2 to make military goods for the war effort instead of goods for the civilian market, from car makers manufacturing military airplanes down to Liggett & Meyers changing the color on the packages of Lucky Strike cigarettes from green to white to conserve green dyes & pigments for wartime paint, clothes, and camouflage.

    While the generation with living memories of World War 2 continued to dominate both the corporate boardrooms and the union halls of the Cold War Era, this involvement of corporations with fostering the general public welfare continued on a more limited scale in a moderately regulated market with relative prosperity and a serious chance for ALL citizens to accumulate some amount of personal wealth.

    That serious chance started to erode in the deregulation orgy of 1980-2000 and finally came to a complete end in the Real Estate Bubble of 2008 and “Great Recession” which followed. Housing equity was the last realm in which Americans of all levels of personal wealth retained the possibility of increasing that wealth without unacceptable levels of risk or a demand for capitalization beyond their means.

    The fading power of Unions and the retirement of the Greatest Generation corporate managers in the 1980’s combined with the deregulation orgy to create a totally different environment of mutual hostility between corporate culture and the greater public interest which we still retain today.

    In real numbers between 1980 and now the amount of annual increase in total wealth for ALL Americans *except* those already in the top 10% has precipitously declined. In other words, even the “upper classes” have acquired far less extra wealth per annum than they did between 1945 and 1980, the lower 60% of the wealth pyramid have been shut out from acquiring ANY increase of wealth whatever, the upper 10% have acquired what everybody else has failed to, and the amount of wealth increase for the top 1% has exceeded any possible level of good sense and sanity.

    Most importantly, the performance of the Stock Market has become completely detached from the economic reality in the streets beyond Wall Street. Thus we have a record S&P average twice in the same year as the greatest and most precipitous drop in general employment since the 1930’s! The fate of the vast majority of us is in the hands of a few nebulous money managers constantly breathing down the neck of all publicly traded corporate entities not only to “show a profit”, but to show a profit EVERY 3 months no matter what the exterior economic environment.

    This has led to, among other things, the outrageous practice of corporations who take the surplus current cash on hand and the idle money from their regular capitalization and borrowing and investing it BACK into other companies traded in the Market who then are doing exactly the same thing! And all to show a plus sign on the balance sheet every 3 months no matter what that means for its business or its future.

    Not only that, since the 2008 Great Recession, even the Federal Reserve has been pumping money into common stocks rather than using it exclusively to buy back the government debt in the form of it’s own Treasury Bills. All this together has turned the Stock Market into a perpetual motion money machine whose major profit outlet is into the wealth hoards of the 1% (which, by the way, you are not part of until your personal wealth exceeds 8 million $) In recent months, it’s been making billionaires not just millions of dollars more, but *billions* of dollars more, with little to no return whatever to just about anybody else.

    Profit is not a dirty word and while “greed” may be a dirty word it’s not a synonym for “profit” and neither are really part of the problem. The problem has been the orgy of deregulation, the supply side economics of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, and and the general philosophy of Libertarianism behind both of them.

    All of these are hogwash. Period. And not just hogwash, but a deadly and active Stage 4 cancer in the bowels of the American body politic.

    1. You correctly show the decline in total wealth after 1980, but fail to note that the Post War boom was only made possible by the total destruction of European and Asian civilizations. American industries had no competition and so could tolerate higher wages and unions.
      However, these conditions will probably never be repeated.

      1. I have heard this argument many times. It may or may not be wrong, but it is completely irrelevant to the points I’m making:
        1. I’m talking about what *corporations* were doing to improve public life during the period as contrasted to what they are currently doing.
        2. I’m also talking about the *opportunity* to attain wealth and the presence or absence of that opportunity by 1/5 segments across the earnings pyramid and the just plain impossibility of about 60 % of obtaining wealth now due to systematic distortion of the equities market by application of Friedman’s economic views and those of his followers.
        3. Moreover I’m talking about the general loss of opportunity to obtain wealth for 90% of the earnings pyramid, even among those who still become more wealthy, but with *far* diminished opportunity and *far* less total wealth obtained by anybody below the 1/10 percentile.
        4. Finally I’m talking about the overwhelming *increase* in the capacity to obtain wealth by the richest of us. There is a (false) cliche of the Friedman years that, “A rising tide floats all boats.” THIS rising tide has floated the boats of only the very richest of us and sunk the boats of over half the people in this country.

        None of this has anything to do with the destruction of Europe and Asia in World War 2.

    2. “the orgy of deregulation”

      Letting people do as they wish is the worst of sins. Gotta oppress more!!

      1. Do you have student loans? If so, how much did you borrow at what rate of interest?. Student loan lenders have the full freedom of deregulation. They also have the government guarantee that if the student defaults, the lender will then be paid in full by the government itself. The student loan business provides the lenders thousands of cash cows paying throughout their entire working life, since by law there is no bankruptcy relief and everyone in college now are highly likely to carry some of that unpaid loan debt to their grave. This is a microcosm of the anarchy involved in the totally deregulated marketplace.

        Whether you know it or not I’m actually taking your comment far more seriously than you are taking mine.

  25. Critics should ask why it’s more profitable for a business to buy back its own stock than it is to expand the business. I don’t know the answer, but think that tax policy might be used to induce companies to plow profits back into their business.

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  27. Even though we learn that increasing profit equals social responsibility, we still have no one willing to share those necessitated products and services with “society” once purchased from the business?

    Frankly, I think we could each benefit from reasonably-priced goods & services. Why should your business leaders each be turned into Scouts and say the Pledge of Allegiance upon start of each new shift?

    Sounds like a case of operant modification of business behavior.

    Mr. Milton Friedman isn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes with that one.

  28. The NYT piece reminded me of a comment by George Stigler:

    “Anyone can win an argument with Milton. When he isn’t there.”

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