You are here

Maximizing Profits: Milton Friedman

15 January, 2016 - 09:29

Economist Milton Friedman is often quoted as having said that the only moral duty a corporation has is to make the most possible money, or to maximize profits, for its stockholders. Friedman’s beliefs are noted at length (see sidebar on Friedman’s article from the New York Times), but he asserted in a now-famous 1970 article that in a free society, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business: to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits as long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception and fraud.” What follows is a major portion of what Friedman had to say in 1970.

“The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits”

Milton Friedman, New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1970

What does it mean to say that “business” has responsibilities? Only people can have responsibilities. A corporation is an artificial person and in this sense may have artificial responsibilities, but “business” as a whole cannot be said to have responsibilities, even in this vague sense.…

Presumably, the individuals who are to be responsible are businessmen, which means individual proprietors or corporate executives.…In a free enterprise, private-property system, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct responsibility to his employers. That 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.…

…[T]he manager is that agent of the individuals who own the corporation or establish the eleemosynary institution, and his primary responsibility is to them…

Of course, the corporate executive is also a person in his own right. As a person, he may have other responsibilities that he recognizes or assumes voluntarily—to his family, his conscience, his feeling of charity, his church, his clubs, his city, his country. He may feel impelled by these responsibilities to devote part of his income to causes he regards as worthy, to refuse to work for particular corporations, even to leave his job…But in these respects he is acting as a principal, not an agent; he is spending his own money or time or energy, not the money of his employers or the time or energy he has contracted to devote to their purposes. If these are “social responsibilities,” they are the social responsibilities of individuals, not of business.

What does it mean to say that the corporate executive has a “social responsibility” in his capacity as businessman? If this statement is not pure rhetoric, it must mean that he has to act in some way that is not in the interest of his employers. For example, that he is to refrain from increasing the price of the product in order to contribute to the social objective of preventing inflation, even though a price increase would be in the best interests of the corporation. Or that he is to make expenditures on reducing pollution beyond the amount that is in the best interests of the corporation or that is required by law in order to contribute to the social objective of improving the environment. Or that, at the expense of corporate profits, he is to hire “hardcore” unemployed instead of better qualified available workmen to contribute to the social objective of reducing poverty.

In each of these cases, the corporate executive would be spending someone else’s money for a general social interest. Insofar as his actions…reduce returns to stockholders, he is spending their money. Insofar as his actions raise the price to customers, he is spending the customers’ money. Insofar as his actions lower the wages of some employees, he is spending their money.

This process raises political questions on two levels: principle and consequences. 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 control these functions, to assure that taxes are imposed so far as possible in accordance with the preferences and desires of the public.…

Others have challenged the notion that corporate managers have no real duties except toward the owners (shareholders). By changing two letters in shareholder, stakeholder theorists widened the range of people and institutions that a corporation should pay moral consideration to. Thus they contend that a corporation, through its management, has a set of responsibilities toward nonshareholder interests.