the nature of firm

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    The Nature of the Firm

    Stephen C. Mooney


    July 2006 (minor corrections 2010)

    It is doubtful if there is yet general agreement among economists on the subject matter

    designated by the title „theory of the firm‟. (Archibald 1987)

    It is important to realize that there is no new „theory of the firm‟ waiting to replace the

    traditional neoclassical theory of the firm. (Furubotn/Richter 1997)

What is a firm? The answer depends largely on who‟s asking and why. For early classical

    economists (Smith, Hume, Say, Ricardo), a firm was a landed estate, a small-scale, family-owned/operated manufacture or a joint-stock trading company. For late classical economists (J.S. Mill, Marx, Cairnes), a firm was predominantly a large-scale industrial manufacture.

    For neoclassical economists, particularly early neoclassical economists (Cournot, Marshall, Jevons, Walras), a firm is an abstract unit of analysis (one of a set of such units that includes the „individual‟, „household‟, „industry‟ and „economy‟); it is an organization engaged in

    production or supply whose internal structure and motivation are assumed for the purposes of

    analysis to be „owner-operator‟ and „profit maximization respectively. Within the

    neoclassical framework, human beings are assumed to be rational (narrowly defined);

    information is assumed to be complete, perfect and costless; the economy is assumed to be

    completely decentralized; and the institutional environment in which the firm operates is ignored. These assumptions were made to simplify the problem domain within an as-yet incomplete 200-year research program.

    For economic historians (Berle and Means 1932, Chandler 1977, North 1990, Spulber 2002), Austrian economists (Schumpeter 1934, Hayek 1945) and late neoclassical economists (Knight 1921, Coase 1937, 1960, Alchian and Demsetz 1972, Williamson 1975, Demsetz 1990, Hart 1995), the internal structure and dynamics of the firm, particularly the public, limited-liability corporation, warrant investigation. The current view is that a firm is a nexus of contracts designed to specify property rights and/or reduce opportunistic behavior arising from bounded rationality and incomplete/asymmetric information, but there is no standard model.

    In practical terms, a firm is essentially a team-machine. It is a self-selecting society with an institutional structure (set of formal and informal rules) brought into existence for the purpose of creating goods and services and selling them to the wider society outside of itself.

    To understand the firm, one must first understand the lever. Anyone who has used a claw hammer to withdraw a nail from a board or a crowbar to pry up a rock from the ground is familiar with the lever. It is a tool that amplifies physical human strength and thereby, in the jargon of economists, increases labor productivity. Whereas it might be impossible to withdraw a nail with one‟s fingers, the leverage of a claw hammer accomplishes the task

    easily. Whereas it might take five men one day to remove a large rock from a field with their bare hands, one man with a crowbar might accomplish the task in an hour. Moreover, while one man alone might lever the rock out of the ground in an hour, three men with levers acting


    in concert might do it in fifteen minutes. That is because tools, knowledge and teamwork can multiply rather than sum human capabilities.

    The advantages which are derived from machinery and manufactures seem to arise principally from

    three sources: The addition which they make to human power. The economy they produce of human

    time. The conversion of substances apparently common and worthless into valuable products.

    (Charles Babbage 1835, in Babbage 1986, 6)

    Not only can a firm do things far more efficiently than a disorganized collection of individuals, but the benefits from team productivity are so great that the team may choose to keep the firm together over the long term instead of disbanding and doing something else.

    The eighth wonder of the world is this: two pounds of iron-stone purchased on the shores of lake

    Superior and transported to Pittsburgh; two pounds of coal mined in Connellsville and manufactured

    into coke and brought to Pittsburgh; one half pound of limestone mined east of the Alleghenies and

    brought to Pittsburgh; a little manganese ore, mined in Virginia and brought to Pittsburgh. And these

    four and one half pounds of material manufactured into one pound of solid steel and sold for one cent.

    That‟s all that need be said about the steel business. (Andrew Carnegie c.1900, in Livesay 1975, 189)

    A firm, therefore, embodies productive technologies in the form of a team-machine. In fact, within the neoclassical perspective, we can go so far as to visualize a firm as nothing more than an automatic, self-optimizing capital asset, literally a machine. This is why neoclassical economists model the entire economy in terms of static equilibrium. The human being is exogenous.

    Viewing the firm as the nexus of a set of contracting relationships among individuals also serves to

    make it clear that the personalization of the firm implied by asking questions such as “what should be

    the objective function of the firm,” or “does the firm have a social responsibility” is seriously

    misleading. The firm is not an individual. It is a legal fiction which serves as a focus for a complex

    process in which the conflicting objectives of individuals...are brought into equilibrium within a

    framework of contractual relations. In this sense the „behavior‟ of the firm is like the behavior of a

    market.... We seldom fall into the trap of characterizing the wheat or stock market as an individual, but

    we often make this error by thinking about organizations as if they were persons with motivations and

    intentions. (Jensen and Meckling 1976, in Putterman and Kroszner 1996, 321-322)

It is also an error to confuse economics (an academic discipline concerned with the pursuit of

    knowledge) with business (a commercial enterprise concerned with the prosecution of action). Not only politicians, but corporate executives themselves have come to believe that the goal of the firm is to maximize profits (“provide shareholder value”) within a framework of corporate social responsibility (“give something back”).

    This confusion arises partly from the separation of ownership and control within very large public corporations and partly from the marriage of science and management at the executive level in both government and industry since World War II. The common perception that big business and big government have merged into a national corporatist technocracy was captured eloquently by Charles Wilson in 1953. When asked if there was any conflict of interest between his position as President of General Motors and his appointment as Secretary of Defense, he replied, “I cannot conceive of one because for years I thought that what was

    good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

    Before we fall into the trap of imagining a world governed by big business, remember that less than three percent of employer firms in the US earn $10 million or more, 0.3 percent have more than 500 employees, 10 percent have more than 20 employees and 75 percent have


    no employees at all (USBoC). Meanwhile, government spending represents a whopping one third of the entire US economy.

    Returning, then, to the firm as a commercial enterprise, it produces that which would not otherwise be produced, it reduces the cost of production so greatly that all share in the benefit (except in certain situations where property rights are held in common or jointly entangled) and it engenders further enterprise through capital accumulation (intellectual, physical, monetary). One might say its very existence attests to its social responsibility.

    Business on a money-making basis is most insecure. It is a touch-and-go affair, moving irregularly and

    rarely over a term of years amounting to much. It is the function of business to produce for

    consumption and not for money or speculation. Producing for consumption implies that the quality of

    the article produced will be high and that the price will be low - that the article be one which serves the

    people and not merely the producer. If the money feature is twisted out of its proper perspective, then

    the production will be twisted to serve the producer. The producer depends for his prosperity upon

    serving the people. He may get by for a while serving himself, but if he does, it will be purely

    accidental, and when the people wake up to the fact that they are not being served, the end of that

    producer is in sight. (Henry Ford 1922, in Ford 1973, 12)

    In addition to being a nexus of contracts, a modern firm has become a nexus of images, emotions and ethical values with an overarching identity - an icon - recognizable to the market and the community at large in the form of reputation. While it is fashionable now for a firm to mirror the ethical values and social norms of the day, at the end of that day, its reputation depends solely upon providing goods and customer services to the community of which it is a subset. A firm, therefore, has always been and will always be a commercial rather than political organization. The bottom line is that a firm is what it does.


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