Stop Blaming Milton Friedman!
54 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2020 Last revised: 4 Jun 2020
Date Written: March 11, 2020
A 1970 New York Times essay on corporate social responsibility by Milton Friedman is often said to have launched a shareholder-focused reorientation of managerial priorities in America’s public companies. The essay correspondingly is a primary target of those critical of a shareholder-centric approach to corporate governance. This paper argues that it is erroneous to blame (or credit) Milton Friedman for the rise of shareholder primacy in corporate America. In order for Friedman’s views to be as influential as has been assumed, his essay should have constituted a fundamental break from prevailing thinking that changed minds with some alacrity. In fact, what Friedman said was largely familiar to readers in 1970 and his essay did little to change managerial priorities at that point in time. The shareholder-first mentality that would come to dominate in corporate America would only take hold in the mid-1980s. This occurred due to an unprecedented wave of hostile takeovers rather than anything Friedman said and was sustained by a dramatic shift in favor of incentive-laden executive pay. Correspondingly, the time has come to stop blaming him for America’s shareholder-oriented capitalism.
Keywords: shareholder value, shareholder primacy, corporate social responsibility, Milton Friedman
JEL Classification: G34, K22, L21, N22
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation