Many people reading this are likely to view the use of stakeholder terminology by business leaders as little more than a public relations tool. That is certainly how I have viewed it in the past. If you are a business owner, or executive, who wants to encourage employees, suppliers, customers, and community members to feel loyalty to your business, it makes sense to acknowledge that they may also have a stake in seeing it prosper. And it does no harm to remind governments of their stake in the prosperity of your business via its contributions to tax revenue.
However, I have recently come to associate stakeholder terminology with stakeholder capitalism. That ideology has close links to the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the increased tendency of businesses to seek rewards from governments for pursuit of environmental and social goals (ESG). Reading about stakeholder capitalism has added to my previously expressed concerns that such interactions between business and governments are leading liberal democracies more deeply into a corporatist quagmire.
Michael Rectenwald’s book, The Great Reset and the Struggle for Liberty, has persuaded me that in advocating stakeholder capitalism, Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), has in mind a corpus of ideas and policies that are fundamentally opposed to free markets and classical liberalism. Moreover, the WEF may have sufficient influence among powerful elites to eliminate the already dwindling influence that classical liberalism has been having on public policy.
Rectenwald’s book was written in response to a book by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret entitled Covid-19: The Great Reset, which was published in 2020. Rectenwald draws attention to the open espousal of policies opposed to free markets in that book. Schwab and Malleret welcomed the possibility that governments might take advantage of the pandemic “to permanently increase their role”, and eliminate classical liberalism, which they refer to as neoliberalism. They write:
“COVID-19 is likely to sound the death knell of neoliberalism, a corpus of ideas and policies that can loosely be defined as favouring competition over solidarity, creative destruction over government intervention and economic growth over social welfare. For a number of years, the neoliberal doctrine has been on the wane, with many commentators, business leaders and policy-makers increasingly denouncing its “market fetishism”, but COVID-19 brought the coup de grâce.”
They go on to predict:
“Shareholder value will become a secondary consideration, bringing to the fore the primacy of stakeholder capitalism.”
Klaus Schwab has been advocating stakeholder capitalism for over 50 years, and has been influential in having that concept endorsed at international meetings of powerful people from business and government. The first Davos Manifesto, signed in 1973 states:
“The purpose of professional management is to serve clients, shareholders, workers and employees, as well as societies, and to harmonize the different interests of the stakeholders.”
The 2020 Davos Manifesto is titled: “The Universal Purpose of a Company in the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. It includes similar sentiments to the 1973 Manifesto, but goes on to state, among other things:
“B. A company is more than an economic unit generating wealth. It fulfils human and societal objectives as part of the broader social system. Performance must be measured not only on the return to shareholders, but also on how it achieves its environmental, social and good governance objectives. Executive remuneration should reflect stakeholder responsibility.”
Some CEOs would welcome a long muddled list of performance objectives because it offers them the opportunity to “do their own thing” and provide ready-made excuses for poor performance. Others would prefer to see governments pursue social and environmental objectives by more efficient mechanisms, and to have their own performance judged according to more tangible benefits to shareholders. How does the WEF propose to encourage compliance with its Manifesto?
The WEF’s ESG Index
The WEF published a report in 2020 setting out metrics for measuring company performance with regard to ESG goals. The title of the report is Measuring Stakeholder Capitalism: Towards Common Metrics and Consistent Reporting of Sustainable Value Creation.
A mechanism for grading companies in terms of their environmental, social, and governance practices and plans might be thought to offer useful information to investors and consumers who concerned about the environmental and social impacts of their decisions. However, Rectenwald points out that it also has potential implications for interactions between business and government:
“Woke planners wield the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Index to reward the in-group and to squeeze non-woke players out of business.”
In a recent Newsweek article, Jon Schweppe asks, Why did corporations go ‘woke’? His response, in brief, is that “this is part ideology, part price of admittance to an elite club, and part protection racket – doing everything one can to avoid upsetting the mob”.
Rectenwald’s book suggests to me that the WEF should come to mind following any mention of “ideology” and “an elite club” in this context. The corporate partners of the WEF include over 1000 of the world's largest business organisations. The annual meeting of the WEF in Davos is an invitation-only event but is widely reported in the media. Many notable political leaders, journalists etc. have been members of the Forum of Young Global Leaders, which is reserved for people under 40 years of age who show promise of global leadership. In addition, the WEF’s Global Shapers movement, a training camp for young change-makers (under 30 years old) has over 10, 000 active members.
Rectenwald points out that because ESG is “an impressionistic, qualitative, metric” it exposes business leaders and companies to the whims of woke arbiters. He cites the recent experience of Elon Musk who has been unfairly besmirched because he may have benefited from an emerald mine owned by his father in South Africa during the apartheid era. He sums up:
“In today’s political economy, satisfying shareholders, employees, and customers to earn profits has become less important for corporations than ingratiating the woke cartel and the governments that support it.”
Rectenwald’s book goes on to discuss possible implications for individual liberty of potential innovations such as an individual carbon footprint tracker, but in this essay I want to stick with the implications of stakeholder capitalism.
The Hayek quote at the beginning of the essay suggests another important implication of stakeholder capitalism. The quoted passage is from Law, Legislation, and Liberty (v3, p 82). The context of the quote is a paragraph in which Hayek is responding to the idea that large corporations should be required to consider the public or social interest. He suggests that “as long as the large corporation has the one overriding duty of administering the resources under its control as trustee for its shareholders its hands are largely tied; and it will have no arbitrary power to benefit this or that particular interest”. The paragraph ends by suggesting that obliging large corporations to consider the public interest gives them uncontrollable power that “would inevitably be made the subject of increasing public control”.
There is also reason for concern that obliging corporate managers to adhere to ESG will make them less accountable for productivity performance of enterprises because it will be difficult for company boards to assess the veracity of claims that performance has been adversely affected by ESG. Wokeness can be expected to provide a cover for inefficiency.
I acknowledge that stakeholder capitalism may have some positive implications for human flourishing, that should be offset against the negative implications discussed above. For example, in my book Freedom, Progress, and HumanFlourishing, I note that the difficulty that governments have been experiencing in agreeing upon concerted international action to combat climate change was ameliorated by the actions of business organisations in planning for a carbon free future.
Nevertheless, as I also argue in that book, there is more reason to be concerned about the implications of declining productivity growth than about climate change. By further reducing productivity growth, stakeholder capitalism seems likely to cause a great deal of economic misery.
Unfortunately, major economic crises will probably need to be endured before political leaders inspired by classical liberalism emerge once again to implement the public policy reforms that are needed to restore free markets.