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Serve the Community? Companies Always Have

Ramesh Ponnuru

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- What’s the Business Roundtable up to? The Washington-based nonprofit organization’s members are nearly 200 of the country’s top chief executives. In August, it updated its statement on the purpose of a corporation. Gone was any mention of “shareholder primacy.” In its place was a list of “stakeholders” whom corporations exist to serve, with shareholders listed behind customers, employees, suppliers and “communities.”

Left-wing columnist Katrina vanden Heuvel called the statement a “sudden burst of conscience” and “a concession that corporations have failed to serve the public good.” Critics on the right see the statement as a concession to the left, too -- and deplore it accordingly. The editorialists of the Wall Street Journal have taken several shots, writing that the statement panders to critics such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, and that the CEOs “are fooling themselves if they think this new rhetoric will buy off Ms. Warren and the socialist left.” The Journal’s response to the Business Roundtable included excerpting Milton Friedman’s classic essay, “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.”

But the Roundtable’s statement isn’t so much a concession that corporations need to change their ways as it is a description of what they already do.

That vanden Heuvel is guilty of ideological projection is obvious if one actually reads the statement. “Businesses play a vital role in the economy by creating jobs, fostering innovation and providing essential goods and services,” the group says. That sounds a lot like saying that corporations … serve the public good.

Friedman’s argument, meanwhile, was more qualified than it is remembered for being. Shareholders own the company, he wrote. The CEOs’ “responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.” Assume that shareholder desires and the unlegislated rules of society include that companies serve the public, and there’s nothing in that Friedman claim that’s incompatible with the Roundtable’s statement.

It must also be said that, great man though Friedman was, the essay contained large doses of dogmatism. He suggests that any time a company aims to do good rather than increase its profit- such as when a company hires the “hardcore” unemployed over better-qualified people - it engages in charity that should be left to individuals or governments. In his own example, though, neither individuals nor governments can as easily attain the good that the company can: getting people into private-sector jobs. When businessmen say that in their work they recognize responsibilities other than profit, Friedman writes, they are “preaching pure and unadulterated socialism.” At best, that’s hyperbole.

Companies are complex social institutions with many purposes. One could truthfully say that the Wall Street Journal’s purpose is to make money for owners of News Corp stock - and, indeed, that its management has a legal duty to seek that goal. But that description of its purpose is foolishly reductive. Not every decision made by its employees or even its managers is designed to increase profit. Its editorial page employees, I’d bet, believe that enlightening readers and exerting a positive influence on public debate are worthwhile and proper goals.

The CEOs of other companies make comparable judgments about their own enterprises. That’s no doubt why nearly all of the roundtable’s members signed the new statement. (Of the seven non-signers, two don’t have shareholders and thus had no reason to comment on shareholder primacy.)

Josh Bolten, the president of the organization, tells me that the members were most concerned about the misperception that they were obsessed with short-term share prices. Appeasing Senator Warren – or Katrina vanden Heuvel – doesn’t appear to have been on their minds. The executives want to defend free enterprise. But will that defense be more successful if it is done in the name of a conception of business that is both simplistic and not even believed by business leaders themselves? The country’s leading CEOs have given their answer, and it’s hard to disagree.

To contact the author of this story: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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