The Friedman doctrine, also called shareholder theory or stockholder theory, is a normative theory of business ethics advanced by economist Milton Friedman which holds that a firm's main responsibility is to its shareholders. This shareholder primacy approach views shareholders as the economic engine of the organization and the only group to which the firm is socially responsible. As such, the goal of the firm is to maximize returns to shareholders. Friedman argues that the shareholders can then decide for themselves what social initiatives to take part in, rather than have an executive whom the shareholders appointed explicitly for business purposes decide such matters for them. The Friedman doctrine has been very influential in the corporate world but has also attracted criticism.
Friedman introduced the theory in a 1970 essay for The New York Times titled "A Friedman Doctrine: The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits". In it, he argued that a company has no social responsibility to the public or society; its only responsibility is to its shareholders. He justified this view by considering to whom a company and its executives are beholden:
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 ... the key point is that, in his capacity as a corporate executive, the manager is the agent of the individuals who own the corporation ... and his primary responsibility is to them.
Friedman argued that an executive spending company money on social causes is, in effect, spending somebody else's money for their own purposes:
Insofar as [a business executive's] actions in accord with his "social responsibility" 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.
He argued that the appropriate agents of social causes are individuals—"The stockholders or the customers or the employees could separately spend their own money on the particular action if they wished to do so." He concluded by quoting from his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom: "there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud."
In Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman had argued that when companies concern themselves with the community rather than profit it leads to totalitarianism, consistent with his statement in the first paragraph of the 1970 essay that "businessmen" with a social conscience "are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society".
The Friedman doctrine was amplified after the publication of an influential 1976 business paper by finance professors William Meckling and Michael C. Jensen, "Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behavior, Agency Costs and Ownership Structure", which provided a quantitative economic rationale for maximizing shareholder value.
Shareholder theory has had a significant impact in the corporate world. In 2017, Harvard Business School professors Joseph L. Bower and Lynn S. Paine stated that maximizing shareholder value "is now pervasive in the financial community and much of the business world. It has led to a set of behaviors by many actors on a wide range of topics, from performance measurement and executive compensation to shareholder rights, the role of directors, and corporate responsibility." In 2016, The Economist called shareholder theory "the biggest idea in business", stating "today shareholder value rules business".
In September 2020, fifty years after publishing "A Friedman Doctrine", The New York Times published 22 short responses to Friedman's essay written by 25 prominent people.
Other scholars argue that it is unhealthy and counterproductive to the companies that practice it. Harvard Business School professors Joseph L. Bower and Lynn S. Paine said in 2017 that the Friedman doctrine is "distracting companies and their leaders from the innovation, strategic renewal, and investment in the future that require their attention", puts companies at risk of "activist shareholder attack", and puts "managers ... under increasing pressure to deliver ever faster and more predictable returns and to curtail riskier investments aimed at meeting future needs." The Economist said in 2016 that a focus on short-term shareholder value has become "a license for bad conduct, including skimping on investment, exorbitant pay, high leverage, silly takeovers, accounting shenanigans and a craze for share buy-backs, which are running at $600 billion a year in America".
In 2019, Jerry Useem writing in The Atlantic and prominent Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders writing in The New York Times argued that shareholder theory, which promoted a rise in stock-based compensation, has led executives to enrich themselves by implementing stock buybacks—often to the detriment of the companies they work for. The critics argued this diverts company funds away from potentially more profitable or socially valuable avenues, like research and design, reduces productivity, and increases inequality by delivering money to higher-paid employees who receive stock-based compensation and not to lower-paid employees who do not.
Shareholder theory has been criticized by proponents of stakeholder theory, who believe the Friedman doctrine is inconsistent with the idea of corporate social responsibility to a variety of stakeholders. They argue it is morally imperative a business takes into account all of the people who are affected by its decisions. They also argue that taking into account the interests of stakeholders can benefit the company and its shareholders; for example, a company donating services or goods to help those hurt in a natural disaster is not acting in the direct interest of its shareholders, but in doing so builds community allegiance to the company, ultimately benefitting the company and its shareholders. In 2019, influential business groups such as the World Economic Forum and the Business Roundtable updated their mission statement, leaving behind the Friedman doctrine in favor of "stakeholder capitalism" (at least on paper if not in widespread practice).
Friedman's characterization of moral responsibility has been questioned. Ronald Duska, in a 1997 article in the Journal of Business Ethics and in his 2007 book Contemporary Reflections on Business Ethics, argued that Friedman failed to differentiate two very different aspects of business: (1) the motive of individuals, who are often motivated by profit to participate in business, and (2) the socially sanctioned purpose of business, or the reason why people allow businesses to exist, which is to provide goods and services to people. Duska said of a hypothetical businessperson's belief that there is no business ethics beyond making a profit: "Does that mean [the businessperson] is likely to give you a faulty product if he can get away with it and make more profit? If he really believes what he says, aren't you a fool to do business with him?" John Friedman (no relation to Milton Friedman), writing in the Huffington Post in 2013, said: "Mr. Friedman argues that a corporation, unlike a person, cannot have responsibility. No one would engage in a business contract with a corporation if they thought for one minute that a corporation was not responsible to pay its bills, for example. So clearly, therefore, a corporation can have legal, but also moral responsibilities."
- Smith, H. Jeff (15 July 2003). "The Shareholders vs. Stakeholders Debate". MIT Sloan Management Review (Summer 2003).
- Friedman, Milton (September 13, 1970). "A Friedman Doctrine: The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits". The New York Times Magazine.
- Denning, Steve (27 April 2017). "The 'Pernicious Nonsense' Of Maximizing Shareholder Value". Forbes. Retrieved 12 July 2019.
- Friedman, Milton (2002) . Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-26421-1. OCLC 49672469.
- Denning, Steve (17 July 2017). "Making Sense Of Shareholder Value: 'The World's Dumbest Idea'". Forbes. Retrieved 15 July 2019.
- Bower, Joseph L.; Paine, Lynn S. (June 2017). "The Error at the Heart of Corporate Leadership". Harvard Business Review. 95 (3): 50–60.
These events illustrate a way of thinking about the governance and management of companies that is now pervasive in the financial community and much of the business world.
- "Analyse this". The Economist. 31 March 2016. Retrieved 15 July 2019.
- "A Free Market Manifesto That Changed the World, Reconsidered". The New York Times. 11 September 2020. Retrieved 16 September 2020. The 25 people who wrote responses are Marc Benioff, Martin Lipton, David R. Henderson, Howard Schultz, Alex Gorsky, Marianne Bertrand, Daniel S. Loeb, Oren Cass, Oliver Hart, Erika Karp, Joseph Stiglitz, Leo E. Strine Jr. with Joey Zwillinger, Sara Nelson, Dambisa Moyo, Robert Reich, Glenn Hubbard, Kenneth Langone, Anand Giridharadas, Laurence D. Fink, Thea Lee with Josh Bivens, Felicia Wong, Russ Roberts, and Darren Walker.
- Fox, Justin (18 April 2012). "The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase ... What Exactly?". Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 24 May 2020.
- Grainger, James (September 9, 2007). "It's all Friedman's doing". Toronto Star. Archived from the original on 2012-10-13. Retrieved 2017-08-28.
- Useem, Jerry (August 2019). "The Stock-Buyback Swindle". The Atlantic. Retrieved 25 July 2019.
- Schumer, Chuck; Sanders, Bernie (3 February 2019). "Schumer and Sanders: Limit Corporate Stock Buybacks". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 July 2019.
- But for a somewhat different view see: Teitelbaum, Richard (7 March 2019). "Share Buybacks May Be Bad — Just Not for the Reasons You Think". Institutional Investor. Retrieved 25 July 2019.
- Stout, Lynn A. (2012). The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler. ISBN 9781605098135. OCLC 760975992. Retrieved 3 September 2017.
- Harrison, Jeffrey S.; Freeman, R. Edward; Cavalcanti Sá de Abreu, Mônica (2015). "Stakeholder Theory As an Ethical Approach to Effective Management: Applying the Theory to Multiple Contexts". Review of Business Management. 17 (55): 858–869. doi:10.7819/rbgn.v17i55.2647. Retrieved 15 July 2019.
- Dooms, Michaël (2019). "Stakeholder Management for Port Sustainability: Moving From Ad-Hoc to Structural Approaches". In Bergqvist, Rickard; Monios, Jason (eds.). Green Ports: Inland and Seaside Sustainable Transportation Strategies. Amsterdam: Elsevier. pp. 63–84. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-814054-3.00004-9. ISBN 9780128140550. OCLC 1028528205.
- Sundheim, Doug; Starr, Kate (22 January 2020). "Making Stakeholder Capitalism a Reality". Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 4 May 2020.
- Govindarajan, Vijay; Srivastava, Anup (30 January 2020). "We Are Nowhere Near Stakeholder Capitalism". Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 25 May 2020.
- Duska, Ronald F. (September 1997). "The Why's of Business Revisited". Journal of Business Ethics. 16 (12/13): 1401–1409. JSTOR 25073004.
- Duska, Ronald F. (2007). Contemporary Reflections on Business Ethics. Issues in Business Ethics. 23. Dordrecht: Springer-Verlag. pp. 7–11. doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-4984-2. ISBN 9781402049835. OCLC 76951920.
- Cortez, Franz Giuseppe F. (December 2017). "Employee Profit Sharing: A Moral Obligation or a Moral Option?" (PDF). KRITIKE: An Online Journal of Philosophy. 11 (2): 257–277 (273). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2020-02-16.
Ronald Duska clarifies the confusion between motive and purpose. The purpose of business is the provision of goods and services and this purpose is independent from the plethora of motives that individual business owners can have.
- Friedman, John (12 May 2013). "Milton Friedman Was Wrong About Corporate Social Responsibility". HuffPost. Retrieved 15 July 2019.