Stakeholders and Corporate Social Responsibility
Nicolai Foss and I have written a paper criticizing currently fashionable "stakeholder" approaches to the firm and the idea that managers should pursue "corporate social responsibility." BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, who manages $6 trillion in corporate assets, made a splash last month by insisting that corporate executives focus not on shareholders, but on a broader segment of society: "Companies must ask themselves: What role do we play in the community? How are we managing our impact on the environment? Are we working to create a diverse workforce? Are we adapting to technological change? Are we providing the retraining and opportunities that our employees and our business will need to adjust to an increasingly automated world? Are we using behavioral finance and other tools to prepare workers for retirement, so that they invest in a way that that will help them achieve their goals?"
Foss and I argue that this view ignores the basic function of ownership, which is to exercise responsibility for productive resources. Building on Mises's judgment-based view of entrepreneurship, we argue that corporations should be run in the interests of owners -- and that not everyone affected by a company's actions, let alone society at large, is an owner. Here is the abstract:
We argue that the stakeholder and CSR literatures can benefit from more systematic thinking about ownership. We discuss general notions of ownership in economics and law and the entrepreneurial notion of ownership we have developed in prior work. On this basis, we argue that stakeholder theory needs to deal more systematically with ownership as an economic function that can be exercised with greater or lesser ability, may be complementary to other economic functions, and works better when assigned to homogeneous groups. Some stakeholder groups are likely to lack what we call “ownership competence,” even if they have made relationship-specific investments, in part because of diverse interests. We also discuss CSR from the perspective of ownership and support Friedman’s original position, but with a twist. The point of Fried-man’s paper is not that firms “should” maximize profits, but that managerial pursuit of “socially responsible” activities in a discretionary way imposes costs on owners. We suggest this problem is exacerbated with entrepreneurial managers who can devise new ways to disguise self-interested actions as CSR initiatives.
The paper is titled "Stakeholders and Corporate Social Responsibility: An Ownership Perspective" and is forthcoming in Advances in Strategic Management. A manuscript copy can be downloaded at SSRN.