The modern business corporation versus the free market?

Abstract

Is the modern large publicly traded business corporation compatible with a truly free market? The question itself may seem strange, even silly. Corporations are primary actors in what the media refer to as ‘the market economy’. Also, when the media refer to ‘the market’, they as often as not mean the stock exchange, which is the place where the shares of large corporations are traded. Moreover, during the age of socialist ascendancy, many defenders of the free market have felt themselves moved to defend the corporation against socialist or ‘liberal’ attacks. Many genuine advocates of the free market even appear willing to make the stronger claim that a defence of the free market requires a defence of the corporation. In their view, defending the corporate form of business organisation is an essential part of the argument for the free market. Prima facie, there seems to be a strong case for saying that the large ‘publicly traded’ corporation is compatible with the requirements of the free market. Nevertheless, I believe classical liberals and libertarians have good reasons to question that view. First, what the media say is not always accurate even on the count of reporting facts, which supposedly is their core business. Conceptual analysis is not their forte. They do not have much consideration for the theoretical contexts from which terms such as ‘free market’ derive their significance or for the requirements of consistency in their use of such ‘theory laden’ terms. The stock exchange is a market of sorts, but it is not ‘the market’. In any case, the stock exchanges with which the media are familiar are not really free but rather heavily regulated markets. Second, socialist critiques of the corporation often were presented as critiques of free market capitalism and merited a vigorous response from the latter’s defenders..

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