Businesses have a social obligation? Laurence D. Fink is wrong about that. Mr Fink, head of investment firm Blackrock, has drafted a letter to business CEOs due to be delivered this week, according to widespread business press reporting. Strangely, Mr Fink has shared his draft with the media in advance – that is genuinely a puzzle partly because it makes public a fundamental misunderstanding. If the reporting is correct, then Mr Fink plans to tell the CEOs of businesses that Blackrock may invest in that their firms need to contribute to society: “To prosper overtime, every company must not only deliver financial performance but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”
What does he mean by a positive contribution to society? There is clearly an implication that he thinks businesses that deliver financial performance are not necessarily making a positive contribution to society. Who does he think should decide what represents a positive contribution? By what means should such judgement be put into practice? Therein lies the obvious inconsistency in this tired old mantra. As an aside, this mantra is old and tired. It is nearly 50 years ago that Milton Friedman published a piece on this very topic. Mr Fink may think he is delivering a new message, but he’s not.
Put simply, businesses make a positive contribution to society, as judged by society, when they make profits. It is only when making profits that businesses are making effective use of scarce resources. By making a profit, a business is adding value to the mix of inputs of raw materials, land , labour and capital and the output is valued more highly by consumers. If a business is making a loss, then the output is not valued by consumers to the same extent as some alternative purposes to which the inputs could be employed. Nothing further than a profit is needed to demonstrate a positive contribution to society.
Now, if someone argues that “their” view of what constitutes a positive contribution to society differs in some way, then the obvious questions are a) what makes your view any better or worse than anyone else’s view? b) in what way should business activity change to satisfy your view? and c) who will pay for that different activity? Enforcing any action upon business activity owing to a perceived will to better society is inherently an attack on personal freedom. It is simply another means of gaining and exploiting political power: controlling or inhibiting the behaviour of some people and taking their economic resources away in doing so, typically by enforcing higher consumer prices or lower shareholder returns.
Businesses are not moral entities. They do not have obligations. Contrary to what some people believe, the don’t even pay tax. Only people pay tax and only people have moral obligations. We have political institutions that are formed, more or less, along democratic grounds, that make laws that constrain the behaviour of people. Company managers, agents as they are of the shareholders, who believe that they must contribute to society by doing anything other than make profits, are attempting to exert political power. In doing so, they are acting in breach of their obligations to their shareholders and almost certainly, making a negative, not positive, contribution to society.