Contested Visions: The Value of Systems Theory for Corporate Law

54 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2017 Last revised: 11 May 2017

See all articles by Tamara Belinfanti

Tamara Belinfanti

New York Law School

Lynn A. Stout

Cornell Law School - Jack G. Clarke Business Law Institute (deceased)

Date Written: March 29, 2017


Despite the dominant role corporations play in our economy, culture, and politics, the nature and purpose of corporations remains hotly contested. This conflict was brought to the fore in the recent Supreme Court opinions in Citizens United and Hobby Lobby. Although the prevailing narrative for the past quarter-century has been that corporations “belong” to shareholders and should pursue “shareholder value,” support for this approach, which has been justified as essential for managerial accountability, is eroding. It persists today primarily in the form of the argument that corporations should seek “long-term” shareholder value. Yet, as this Article shows, when shareholder value is interpreted to mean “long-term” shareholder value, it no longer offers the sought-after managerial accountability.

What can? This Article argues that systems theory offers an answer. Systems theory is a well-developed design and performance measuring methodology routinely applied in fields such as engineering, biology, computer science, and environmental science. It provides an approach to understanding the nature and purpose of corporate entities that is not only consistent with elements of the many otherwise-conflicting visions of the corporation that have been developed, but also with important and otherwise difficult-to-explain features of corporate law and practice. It offers proven methods for measuring corporate performance that recognize the possibility of multiple goals and the importance of sustainability. And it cautions that, by ignoring the lessons of systems theory, shareholder value thinking may have encouraged regulatory and policy interventions into corporate governance that are not only ineffective, but destructive.

Keywords: Corporate form, Legal personality, Limited liability, Perpetual life, Entity theory, Aggregate theory, Franchise theory, Shareholder primacy, Stakeholder welfare, Corporate Purpose, Shareholder Value, Nature of the Corporation, Legal Persons, Corporate governance, Theory of the firm

Suggested Citation

Belinfanti, Tamara and Stout, Lynn A., Contested Visions: The Value of Systems Theory for Corporate Law (March 29, 2017). University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Forthcoming, Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17-17, Available at SSRN:

Tamara Belinfanti

New York Law School ( email )

185 West Broadway
New York, NY 10013
United States

Lynn A. Stout (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School - Jack G. Clarke Business Law Institute (deceased)

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