The Libertarian Conception of Corporate Property: A Critique of Milton Friedman's Views on the Social Responsibility of Business

Journal of Business Ethics 7 (12):891 - 906 (1988)
A critique of Milton Friedman's thesis that corporate executives have a fiduciary responsibility not to pursue socially desirable goals at the expense of profitability. The author argues that even under a libertarian conception of the nature of corporate property, Friedman's thesis does not follow. In particular, an executive's decision to prize "socially responsible behavior" above profit maximization does not necessarily violate the contractual rights of dissenting stockholders. Whether executives have obligations to refrain from such behavior depends entirely on the content of the contract which actually exists between stockholders and executives. After an examination of the body of legal precedent which informs the content of that contract, the author concludes that there are clearly recognizable circumstances in which executives may legitimately pursue corporate altruism at the expense of profits, stockholder protestations notwithstanding. Since this contractual relationship with management is one in which stockholders have voluntarily engaged, libertarians have no grounds for complaining that the behavior of such executives constitutes a form of theft of the stockholders' property.
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