Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Four Dimensions of Corporations

Posted Jan 26, 2011 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

The conversation about the role of corporations in electoral politics (the Vermont proposal for a Constitutional Amendment that denies the status of “person” to corporations is a recent example) has largely focused on what corporations are not (not persons and not citizens) as a way of getting then out of electoral politics.  One can also talk about where they belong by looking at what they are.  In Civilizing the Economy, I list four key aspects of corporations.

The Corporation as Property

When someone asks what is the value of Google, for example, the answer will probably be its property value.  It has owners.  Milton Friedman’s famous argument that the only social responsibility of corporations is to make a profit treats corporations this way.  For him, executives are essentially property managers.  My guess is that this is the view of the conservative justices on the Supreme Court, although they ignored this aspect of corporations in their Citizens United decision.

The Corporation as a Community

A corporation is not only a piece of property, but also a community.  Whether the corporation is designed to produce clothes or health care, the production is accomplished by organizing people to do the work.   According to most corporate law, these work relationships are seen as property relations, not civic relations.  Corporate leaders, in any case, certainly are not obligated to represent the civic values of the corporation’s workforce.

The Corporation as Actor

A corporation’s decision-making process gives a corporation its capacity to act as a corporation.  Since a corporate policy or action is based on its values and goals, instead of any individual’s values and goals, it makes sense to say that a corporation is an actor. This does not make it a human being or a citizen.  It simply recognizes their capacity to make organizational choices and it allows us to hold them accountable for what they do.

The Corporation as Provider

The idea of corporations as providers highlights their function in society: providing goods and services to communities.  If we were to grant a corporate charter, it makes sense to ask what they will provide that we need.  This is so mundane that we tend to overlook the actual purpose of corporations.  As a provider, a corporation belongs to the particular system of provision in which it participates.  General Motors, for example belongs to the transportation system, and its purpose is to provide vehicles that fit with a just and sustainable transportation system. In designing the transportation system, General Motors should have a voice.  It belongs to that system.  It does not belong to the system of electoral politics.  That should be reserved for human citizens and their representatives.

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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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