A history of how corporate innovation has shaped society, from ancient Rome to Silicon Valley
From legacy manufacturers to emerging tech giants, corporations wield significant power over our lives, our economy, and our politics. Some celebrate them as engines of progress and prosperity. Others argue that they recklessly pursue profit at the expense of us all.
In For Profit, law professor William Magnuson reveals that both visions contain an element of truth. The story of the corporation is a human story, about a diverse group of merchants, bankers, and investors that have over time come to shape the landscape of our modern economy. Its central characters include both the brave, powerful, and ingenious and the conniving, fraudulent, and vicious. At times, these characters have been one and the same.
Yet as Magnuson shows, while corporations haven’t always behaved admirably, their purpose is a noble one. From their beginnings in the Roman Republic, corporations have been designed to promote the common good. By recapturing this spirit of civic virtue, For Profit argues, corporations can help craft a society in which all of us—not just shareholders—benefit from the profits of enterprise.
Corporations present a Jekyll and Hyde face, boosting business efficiency and acumen while exploiting workers and suborning government, according to this probing study. Texas A&M corporate law professor Magnuson (Blockchain Democracy) surveys landmark corporations past and present, including Roman societates publicanorum, which collected taxes and provisioned the legions while also selling slaves; the British East India Company, which grew a global trading infrastructure with its innovative joint stock structure, but turned itself into a despotic state in India; the Ford Motor Company, which brought cars and consumerism to the masses, but imposed torturous work regimens on assembly-line employees; ExxonMobil, the multinational that keeps oil flowing, but also does business with dictators and impedes decarbonization; and Facebook, which connects users while invading privacy and empowering Russian election meddling. Magnuson's lucid, elegantly written account illuminates sharp tensions between management, labor, and shareholders and between public responsibility and private profit seeking. He paints colorful, sometimes inspiring narratives of corporations' achievements, such as the Union Pacific Railway's spanning of the American continent with epic feats of engineering and organization (before it became a corrupt monopoly), while highlighting the need to rein in their excesses and kick them out of politics altogether. Far from an anti-corporate polemic, this is an evenhanded, richly nuanced examination of the modern economy's central institution.