A Partial Defense of Milton Friedman’s 1970 NYT Essay

To understand my story, you first need to understand Friedman’s basic point. Here it is in a nutshell: Managers are employees of corporations. In the decisions they make with corporate resources, they should be responsible to the corporation. That means being responsible to the stockholders, who, after all, are the corporation’s owners. The vast majority of stockholders want the corporation to, in Friedman’s words, “make as much money as possible.” Thus Friedman’s claim that the social responsibility of a corporation is to make money. Friedman was clear that he wasn’t advocating breaking the rules. He stated that the managers should conform “to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.”

I learned Friedman’s point in a personal way when I was eleven. My mother had raised us to help others. I liked doing that and didn’t see it as a heavy obligation. But when I was eleven, my brother, Paul, who was fourteen, bought a cheap set of golf clubs and hired me to caddy for him. When we were on the eighth hole of a nine-hole course near our summer cottage in Minaki, Ontario, we saw a golfer hunting in the rough for his lost golf ball. I thought I should stop and help, so I did.

Paul had a different view: he wanted to play through and I was working for him and so I should do what he asked. We had a big argument and I finally gave in. When we got home, my brother complained to my mother that I hadn’t kept my side of the bargain. I was sure my mother would support me. She didn’t. “When Paul hired you,” she said, “you were working for him. When you’re on your own you can stop and help someone find his ball, but when you’re working for someone, he has the right to decide whether to let you.”

The lesson stung, but I ended up agreeing. That’s why the most important part of Friedman’s essay spoke to me. It’s simply wrong, when you’re working for someone, to use his resources for your ends when they don’t promote his ends. In the case with my brother, I was using my time to help others but my time was really his time: he was paying for it. In the case of corporations, managers might be using both their time and the corporation’s resources to help others even though shareholders own those resources and own the manager’s time that they are paying for.

This is from David R. Henderson, “Friedman’s Critics Miss the Mark,” Defining Ideas, September 24, 2020.

I was one of the 20 people asked to comment on passages of Friedman’s famous 1970 NY Times essay, “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits. Hoover colleague and EconTalk host Russ Roberts was another.

One of the strangest comments was by Felicia Wong. I write:

Commenter Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, notes that Friedman wrote when America’s “overwhelmingly white” fears were about Watts, Detroit, Vietnam, Kent State, Jackson State, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Hmm. I recall that when King and Kennedy were murdered a lot of black people were upset, too, particularly by King’s murder.

I did note an irony in Friedman’s original essay though:

I’ll end by noting an ironic argument in Friedman’s essay that I don’t agree with and I wonder if even he would agree with today. Fortunately, it doesn’t undercut his case against corporate social responsibility. In stating that managers shouldn’t use corporate resources at the expense of shareholders, even for purposes that a huge percentage of us would agree are good, Friedman argued that we should leave those functions to the government. He wrote:

On the level of political principle, the imposition of taxes and the expenditure of tax proceeds are governmental functions. We have established elaborate constitutional, parliamentary, and judicial provisions to assure that taxes are imposed so far as possible in accordance with the desires of the public—after all, “taxation without representation” was one of the battle cries of the American Revolution.

That ignores what we have learned, and Friedman learned, from the “Public Choice” school of economics, led by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Government’s incentives are usually perverse and we see the bad results almost daily. There’s much more hope, and I think Friedman shared that hope, for private voluntary activity.

Read the whole thing.