Hippies in the Boardroom: A Historical Critique of Addressing Stakeholder Interests Through Private Ordering
Modern capitalist theory has been the engine of Western innovation and prosperity for centuries. However, the persistence of the free market and corporate form in the United States has come at a high cost. Industrialization powered by fossil fuels has permanently degraded and destabilized the Earth’s climate, wealth continues to concentrate among a handful of individuals, and increasing nativist and anti-immigrant sentiments threaten our institutions. This has led scholars to draw parallels between the current day and the Gilded Age, a period of massive wealth inequality during which the negative externalities of unfettered capitalism became particularly clear. This Note is situated in the rapidly expanding literature about environmental social governance (ESG) and stakeholderism, looking to past instances of corporate reform as well as the present realities of the modern-day corporation to argue that private ordering is an ineffective and improper means of addressing negative externalities of capitalism. It identifies moments of proto-stakeholderism during three periods: the Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and stock market crash of 1929, highlighting the cyclicality of addressing stakeholder concerns throughout history. It critiques two major avenues through which corporations might consider stakeholders—private ordering or government action—and argues that private ordering’s legal limits and legitimacy problems are inescapable when considering transformational ESG reform.