Friedman’s critique of CSR at 50: birthday surprises

By Jeremy Moon

Sorry I am late in sending a 50th birthday card for Milton Friedman’s essay “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits [1]. Many would say that it is a birthday not worth celebrating. I agree with my colleagues Steen Vallentin (see blog) and Sandra Waddock (see blog) that we should move beyond Friedman’s assumptions and prescriptions. So why do I use a seemingly outdated newspaper article in my introductions to courses on corporate social responsibility (CSR)? In Steen’s terms, should I continue to flog the ‘somewhat dead horse’? As I think this horse still has legs I wouldn’t flog it, but I would continue to take some of the CSR journey with it. And here’s why. 

By reading and thinking about “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits” students have gained insights into how business and its context changes, and into some key abiding issues (e.g. the relationship of business responsibility to government, the purpose of business). Friedman packs an awful lot into the essay. Despite my belief that it is anachronistic and misguided in parts, Friedman – sometimes unwittingly – brings a few interesting surprises to the class.

Surprise No. 1 is that it was even worth penning a critique of business social responsibility in 1970. It is sometimes assumed – especially in business schools – that business concerns with responsibility and sustainability are relatively new fads (the sad truth is that many schools have been slow to address these concerns). But, yes, there was a lot of talk about CSR in the late 1960s USA, and Friedman castigates GM Motors for its social initiatives. So CSR is not new but it has its ups and downs. Its focal issues, modes and rationales differ over time and vary among contexts.  

The biggest change to CSR since 1970 is probably globalization bringing with it global supply chains and new corporate agendas of responsibility for labour & human rights and for the natural environment. Friedman envisaged that the only governments relevant for social issues were democratically accountable (i.e. American) and thus did not envisage the difficult responsibility issues for corporations in sourcing from, and selling to, countries which are undemocratically and corruptly governed. 

Surprise No. 2 is for those who know that Milton Friedman had already achieved fame or infamy for his libertarian position. In his book Capitalism and Freedom (1962), he presented government as inefficient and ineffective on key public policy issues. As Sandra Waddock points out, neo-liberalism, of which Friedman is a standard-bearer, generally contends that ‘less government is invariably good’. Yet in “The Social Responsibility of Business” Friedman is positive about government as an accountable and competent actor for resolving societal problems.

Friedman suggests a dichotomous view of the responsibilities of government and business because he assumed that business could best pursue its responsibilities – to increase profits – unencumbered by public policy obligations, and that government could legitimately raise taxes to address social issues. But this dichotomy rather belies the realities, then and now, of business organizations seeking favorable governmental intervention in markets and society… and of governments seeking business contributions to addressing societal challenges.

Surprise No. 3Friedman acknowledges the virtue of social investments by business … ‘excuse me?’. Yes. In a rather over-looked passage, he comments that: 

It may well be in the long-run interest of a corporation that is a major employer in a small community to devote resources to providing amenities to that community or to improving its government. That may make it easier to attract desirable employees …or have other worthwhile effects.

M. Friedman (1970). “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits”, p. 124 col. 3.

This looks like an early version of the business case for CSR – re-labeled Creating Shared Value by Porter & Kramer [2]? But Friedman just doesn’t want you to call social investments CSR. Like today’s critics of CSR, Friedman sees this cloaking of a business strategy as a form of “window-dressing” and as “approaching fraud”. This introduces the fascinating point of class discussion about whether something can be described as socially responsible if it also benefits the benefactor, and specifically the corporate benefactor?

Surprise No. 4 is for students of business and management.  It lies in Friedman’s misrepresentation of corporate governance. His main argument about CSR constituting misuse or even theft of shareholders’ property is predicated on his contention that shareholders are the legal owners of publicly traded corporations. But in fact the corporation itself owns its assets: indeed the whole point about limited liability is that shareholders are exempted from liabilities that would otherwise rest on owners [3]. Of course, there are duties to shareholders – legal and ethical – but these are tempered in corporate governance regulation and judicial rulings (details vary among jurisdictions).

This is also a surprise for some corporate critics who see the problem of corporate irresponsibility as simply a function of a shareholder model [4].  In other words, they believe Friedman’s myth of the managers simply being the agents of shareholders. That this myth has achieved such standing is, perhaps partly testimony to the appeal that Friedman’s argument has had… and another reason why I like to introduce him to students.  

Surprise No. 5 is one that, in retrospect, Friedman himself may have had to face. It is clear that investors do not conform to his fairly unidimensional assumptions of shareholders’ motivation: not all are interested in short-term profit. Some are motivated by long-term security of their investment and others by values (e.g. avoidance of risky products, preference for products not tested on animals). Today we see evidence of greater mainstreaming of investor concerns with sustainability issues that Friedman would have contended are beyond corporate responsibility and which are properly in the sphere of government (see Rasche blog).  

Of course, much else has changed which students like to ponder, including:

  1. the extent to which corporations adopt the business case for responsible and sustainable goods and services, be it for their own sake, or reflecting changing consumer, employee or investor preferences or, more broadly, reflecting their understanding of the expectations of societies and regulators.
  2. the institutionalization of CSR through private authority (principles, standards, audits, reports) and its intersection with civil society and democratic government.
  3. skepticism about corporate motivation for “promoting desirable social ends” is no longer the sole prerogative of libertarians like Friedman (and Hayek).  I now also comes from the very socialist perspectives that Friedman feared the most.

So yes, we certainly need to move on, but we may move on more assuredly if part of our journey (on horseback or otherwise) is engaged in the conversation he spurred (sorry for flogging these equine metaphors…). 


References

[1] M. Friedman “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits”, New York Times Magazine, 13 September 1970.

[2] M. Porter & M. Kramer “Creating Shared Value”  Harvard Business Review, Jan  – Feb 2011.

[3] E.g. Lynn A. Stout. The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms InvestorsCorporations, and the Public, 2012.

[4] E.g. Not Fit-for-Purpose: The Grand Experiment of Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives in Corporate Accountability, Human Rights and Global Governance (Summary Report), MSI Integrity, 2020.


About the Author

Jeremy Moon is Professor at Copenhagen Business School, Chair of Sustainability Governance Group and Director of CBS Sustainability. Jeremy has written widely about the rise, context, dynamics and impact of CSR.  He is particularly interested in corporations’ political roles and in the regulation of CSR and corporate sustainability.


Photo Source: Milton Friedman blowing out the candles on his birthday cake, while his wife Rose and other party attendees look on. 15 July 1987. ©Hoover Institution Archives.

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