What is the purpose of a corporation? In America today we generally believe that corporations exist to generate profits for their share- holders, who “own” them. Indeed, we have structured much of our economy—and often staked our retirements—on this idea.
Not many years ago, though, most Americans would have found such thinking absurd. From the nation’s earliest days until the 1970s, Americans saw the business corporation mainly as a practical tool of development. The aim might be to build a bridge, or to manufacture steel, or to transport people from one city to another. The private corporation was simply the institution best suited—usually, but not always—to organize and govern such work. Profits were a part of the system. After all, the only way to attract capital is to pay for it. But the manufacture of cash was a distinctly secondary goal...
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Copyright 2008, Harper's Magazine