Most of the reaction to Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling its ice cream in what it calls the "Occupied Palestinian Territories" has focused on what it might mean for Mideast politics.
The more interesting and significant question may be what it means for capitalism.
If activists get their way, more and more businesses will be run on the Ben & Jerry’s model. It’s a textbook case of "stakeholder capitalism" — where businesses are run not by or for their owners, or even by corporate management, but rather by some other group of political pressure-wielders who functionally hijack a business away from the shareholders.
The Ben & Jerry’s fiasco is a perfect window into the problems with this approach.
Lest anyone suffer under the delusion that such temptations are uniquely limited to ice cream companies founded by Vermont hippies, consider that in August 2019, 181 CEOs representing some of America’s biggest businesses — Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeffrey Bezos, Blackrock’s Laurence Fink, Fox’s Lachlan Murdoch, JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, Goldman Sachs’s David Solomon — issued a Business Roundtable “statement on the purpose of a corporation” committing "to all of our stakeholders."
That statement may seem innocuous.
To see where it can easily lead, though, take a look at the letter from Unilever CEO Alan Jope trying to explain the Ben & Jerry’s position to the American Jewish community, which was furious about the move.
Wrote Jope, "From a Unilever perspective, this is a complex matter because since we acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, as part of the acquisition agreement, we have always recognized the right of the brand and its independent board to take decisions in accordance with its social mission. On this decision, it was no different."
The Ben & Jerry’s self-perpetuating "independent board" and "social mission" are where "stakeholder capitalism" is headed if shareholders don’t defend their interests.
Longstanding U.S. corporate law gives corporate directors a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders that is more concrete than any "social mission."
In Ben & Jerry’s case, the "independent board" is accountable to no shareholders. In this instance, it’s making decisions that may well be detrimental to Unilever shareholders.
As one possible indicator of how those shareholders may be affected, consider that 30 Ben & Jerry’s franchisees have written to the company complaining that the decision “has imposed, and will continue to impose, substantial financial costs on all of us.
More importantly, the controversy your recent actions have brought upon our local businesses has had an adverse effect on the value of our independently owned franchises and investments."
The Ben & Jerry’s franchise owners, unlike the self-perpetuating "independent board," are business owners. They have skin in the game.
When the franchise owners sell less ice cream, they make less money.
The Business Roundtable, announcing its new statement of the purpose of a corporation, said prior versions had “stated that corporations exist principally to serve their shareholders."
They wrote, "It has become clear that this language on corporate purpose does not accurately describe the ways in which we and our fellow CEOs endeavor every day to create value for all our stakeholders."
The danger is that, as in the Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s case, some self-proclaimed "stakeholders" will see "value" in pursuing their own political purposes, to the detriment of a company’s owners.
How is the stakeholder "value" that is created measured?
What checks or balances, if any, are in place to prevent shareholder value from being destroyed in the pursuit of so-called stakeholder value?
There’s a clear process for becoming a shareholder: buy shares of stock. Just about anyone, though, can declare themselves a stakeholder and attempt to arrogate for themselves corporate decision-making power.
Left-wing American politicians like Vermont socialist senator Bernie Sanders, a longtime favorite of Ben & Jerry, would give employees corporate board seats and "require corporate boards to consider the interests of all of the stakeholders in a company — including workers, customers, shareholders, and the communities in which the corporation operates."
Wise owners already do consider these interests.
It’s a big leap, though, from considering those interests to allowing, Unilever or Ben & Jerry’s style, people other than the owners of a company to have the final say on key strategic decisions that affect a company’s reputation and profits.
That sort of concession of control amounts to the seizure of private companies for political ends by political activists. It’s hard to recognize it as the free enterprise system. If the practice spreads, the ensuing problems will stretch way beyond the West Bank.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of "JFK, Conservative." Read Ira Stoll's Reports — More Here.
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