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50 years of Friedman’s article on social responsibility of business

Summary:
On 13 Sep 1970, Milton Friedman in a NYT article wrote the infamous words: ..the doctrine of “social responsibility” taken seriously would extend the scope of the political mechanism to every human activity. It does not differ in philosophy from the most explicitly collective doctrine. It differs only by professing to believe that collectivist ends can be attained without collectivist means. That is why, in my book Capitalism and Freedom, I have called it a “fundamentally subversive doctrine” in a free society, and have said that in such a society, “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

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On 13 Sep 1970, Milton Friedman in a NYT article wrote the infamous words:

..the doctrine of “social responsibility” taken seriously would extend the scope of the political mechanism to every human activity. It does not differ in philosophy from the most explicitly collective doctrine. It differs only by professing to believe that collectivist ends can be attained without collectivist means.

That is why, in my book Capitalism and Freedom, I have called it a “fundamentally subversive doctrine” in a free society, and have said that in such a society, “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.”

Obviously, several writers just cut short the lines to: “there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits”.

Mckinsey reflects on the 50th anniversary of the Friedman article:

It has now been 50 years since economist Milton Friedman asked and answered a fundamental question: What is the role of business in society?

Friedman’s stance was plain: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” That view has long influenced management thinking, corporate governance, and strategic moves. But more recently, many leaders have sought to expand that definition to consider all the stakeholders who stand to gain—or lose—from organizations’ decisions.

In 2019, Business Roundtable released a new “Statement on the purpose of a corporation,” signed by 181 CEOs who committed to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders—customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders. The statement outlined a modern standard for corporate responsibility.

On the 50th anniversary of Friedman’s landmark definition, we look at how the conversation on corporate purpose has evolved.

Amol Agrawal
I am currently pursuing my PhD in economics. I have work-ex of nearly 10 years with most of those years spent figuring economic research in Mumbai’s financial sector.

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