Friday, October 14, 2005

The Debate over Corporate "Social Responsibility"

Read Rethinking the Social Responsibility of Business, from Reason Magazine. It's only a few pages long, and it's well worth it. Then, read my comments about it.

My comments:

First of all, I very much enjoyed this piece, and I hope the debate continues.

Second, I have a great deal of respect for all three of these gentlemen. I know that I have benefitted, at one time or another, from each of their contributions to the Market and our society.

Regarding the debate itself, it strengthens Adam Smith's point regarding the benefits to society realized by those enterprising individuals, working in their own self-interest. Realize, of course, that "self-interest" does not merely mean "profit". In fact, John Mackey states a number of times that the (self-imposed) responsibility of Whole Foods is to "...provide value for all [its] stakeholders." I think this is a key point that is implied, but not fully explored in the debate.

"Value" is highly subjective. What is of some measure of value to one person may be of greater or lesser value to another. There is no objective measure of value where individuals are involved. It is the freedom to determine what is of value to each of us that I believe is at the core of Capitalism, and the attempt to arbitrarily determine value that is its undoing.

Entrepeneurs are free to organize their businesses according to what they determine is of value to them. To some, this will mean maximizing profit. To others it will mean engaging in corporate philanthropy. The same holds true for all stakeholders within the business, regardless of their role in the organization. Stockholders will judge the worthiness of their investment based on their own subjective standards. Again, some may be concerned only with maximizing their returns, while others wish to support organizations that embrace a similar set of principles to their own. Should a business fail to meet this set of standards, the stock will be sold, or changes will be mandated by shareholder referendum. By the same token, employees and customers will make their own determinations of value and choose their involvement with the business accordingly.

What it is important to realize, is that no matter what a business sets as its goals it is still subject to the laws of the market. Its survival will still be determined by consumer preference. Its prices will still be influenced by the laws of supply and demand. Whether profits are a means to a socially beneficial end or vice versa is in my view irrelevant.