This is an excerpt of a speech given by Walter E. Williams on February 6, 2005 at Hillsdale College. The complete speech, titled “The Entrepreneur As American Hero,” can be read here: http://www.hillsdale.edu/imprimis/2005/03/.
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At this juncture let me say a few words about the modern push for corporate social responsibility. Do corporations have a social responsibility? Yes, and Nobel Laureate Professor Milton Friedman put it best in 1970 when he said that in a free 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.”
It is only people, not businesses, who have responsibilities. A CEO is an employee, an employee of shareholders and customers. The failure of the corporate executive community to recognize this, and its willingness to engage in activities unrelated to the pursuit of profits, means national wealth will be lower, product prices will be higher and the return on investment lower.
If we care about people’s wants, rather than beating up on profit-making enterprises, we should pay more attention to government-owned non-profit organizations. A good example are government schools. Many squander resources and produce a shoddy product while administrators, teachers and staff earn higher pay and perks, and customers (taxpayers) are increasingly burdened. Unlike other producers, educationists don’t face the rigors of the profit discipline, and hence they’re not as accountable. Ditto the U.S. Postal Service. It often provides shoddy and surly services, but its managers and workers receive increasingly higher wages while customers pay higher and higher prices. Again, wishes of customers can be safely ignored because there’s no bottom line discipline of profits.
Here’s Williams’ law: Whenever the profit incentive is missing, the probability that people’s wants can be safely ignored is the greatest. If a poll were taken asking people which services they are most satisfied with and which they are most dissatisfied with, for-profit organizations (supermarkets, computer companies and video stores) would dominate the first list while non-profit organizations (schools, offices of motor vehicle registration) would dominate the latter. In a free economy, the pursuit of profits and serving people are one and the same. No one argues that the free enterprise system is perfect, but it’s the closest we’ll come here on Earth.