Should we welcome gestures by CEOs of the Business Roundtable to soften their allegiance to the ideology of Milton Friedman? Corporations have long abided by Friedman’s famous declaration that “the one and only” social responsibility of business is to maximize profits. Now, after decades of unapologetically exclusive focus on the bottom line, executives at two hundred of America’s largest companies believe it’s time to consider other “stakeholders” as well, like their employees, their communities—why, even society at large.
If, as Mitt Romney once insisted, corporations are people, then it stands to reason that they wish to be liked, just as actual people do. CEOs have no doubt picked up on the distrust with which the public views their companies, and the new mission statement released by the Roundtable in August seems to acknowledge the zeitgeist. Its signatories pledged to “invest in our employees,” to “compensate them fairly,” and to provide “important benefits.” They promised to “foster inclusion, dignity, and respect.” They vowed to “protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.” They confirmed that they “respect the people in our communities.” The idea of revising the statement came from Roundtable president Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank. The man tapped to draft it—presumably for posterity—was Alex Gorsky, chief executive of Johnson & Johnson, who later admitted in an interview that “there were times when I felt like Thomas Jefferson.”