Do Market Libertarians Believe Their Own Hype?

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But in summary, Becker’s view of corporate morality is that the only ethical responsibilities of business executives are to obey the law, adhere to contracts (really just a subset of the first rule), and, most critically, to maximize the price of their companies’ shares. The first coherent statement of this moral view came from the economist Milton Friedman in a full-throated defense of capitalism with the brilliantly blunt title, “The Social Responsibility of Business Is To Increase Its Profits.” Now the bogeyman of creeping socialism that Milton worried about 40 years ago is long gone, as is Friedman himself, who died in 2006, but his contentious and now ossified principles live on in the writings of Becker, his most faithful student.

The Friedman-Becker moral theory has three virtues. The first is its simplicity; it reduces the whole tangle of moral issues to a simple bright-line test. The second is that it is able to justify most miserable behavior and even turn the tables on anyone who suggests, for instance, that companies should worry about the treatment of workers in Chinese factories or the fairness of offering subprime mortgages with usurious terms. To care about things like this is not only unnecessary, the theory suggests, but actually wrong because it betrays the interests of the shareholders who are the executive’s ultimate employers.

The third virtue is that it combines supremely well with the idea that senior executives should have pay packages that rely mainly on stock options and reward them for a single-minded devotion to the share price. The combination of the “shareholder value” theory and stock- and options-based compensation creates a beautifully virtuous circle. The profits of the shareholders are the CEO’s own interests, too, so if acting in the best interests of the shareholders (that is, raising the share price) is the CEOs main moral responsibility … well, gee, acting ethically means acting in his own best interest is always the right thing to do.

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