By Kyle Westaway
December 1, 2011 | HBR Blog Network
Despite the recent crackdowns in New York and Los Angeles, it's not surprising that the Occupy Wall Street movement has exploded into 900 chapters. The Occupy movement — as well as The Tea Party — are both "mad as hell" about the current state of affairs. Both sides share a general dissatisfaction with our current capitalist system. The left wants to end capitalism. The right says if we could just get the government out of the way, then the capitalist system would work.
I think both groups' conception of capitalism is off the mark. To gain some clarity, we need to consult Adam Smith.
Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, was the first to assert the concept of free market capitalism. In his most popular work The Wealth of Nations he wrote about the oft-quoted "invisible hand." But in his first work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments — which he considered his most meaningful contribution — he writes about our duty to fellow members of society. Pundits on either end of the political spectrum quote whichever work suits their argument. Predictably, the right quotes Wealth of Nations and the left quotes The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Given the gap between modern capitalism and the morals-based approach from his first book, one can't help but wonder if Smith was an intellectual schizophrenic, essentially promoting two competing theories.
I don't think he was. In fact, I see his two preeminent works amounting to a unified theory, a blueprint for a more stable and sustainable version of capitalism; a conscious capitalism. The Wealth of Nations presupposed actors in the capitalist system operating on the moral framework he laid out in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. The free market has no conscience of its own: it is made up of billions of people transacting. Though Smith asserts that each of these people are guided by their self interest, he presupposes that each of the actors in the marketplace are guided by some internal morality and an awareness of one's place within the broader context of his community — locally and globally.
The current version of capitalism is not the one envisioned by Smith at all. He was seeking to create a system defined by efficient allocation of resources driven by self-interest, but guided by self-restraint. This is conscious capitalism.
The current version of capitalism's guidance from self-interest in the corporate world is evidenced in the legal duty to maximize shareholder value, which opens directors up to a lawsuit from their shareholders if they make a decision that fails to make the highest possible profit for their shareholders. Thus, the duty to maximize shareholder value handcuffs directors that want to make decisions that seek to create benefit for people and planet as well as financial returns.
There is debate whether this duty exists, but it is such a dominant perception among directors that it is the practical reality. In order for corporations to be free from the shackles of maximizing shareholder value, the fiduciary duties must be broadened.
Fortunately, many state legislatures in the United States are seeing the need for a new legal structure that embraces conscious capitalism by broadening the fiduciary duty from maximizing shareholder value to maximizing stakeholder value — the legal mandate to take make decisions that pursue not only a positive benefit on the bottom line of the shareholders, but also the community, environment, employees and suppliers. This broadening of fiduciary duty is a fundamental shift at the very core of the corporation. This new type of corporation that embraces conscious capitalism by broadening fiduciary duty is known as a Benefit Corporation.
The Benefit Corporation embodies the theories of both The Wealth Nations and the Theory of Moral Sentiments, and ushers in a version of conscious capitalism that promotes both self-interest and the benefit of society. Adam Smith would be proud.