Markets and the Good   /   Fall 2023   /    Thematic: Markets and the Good

Profit, Power, and Purpose

Rethinking the Modern Corporation

Michael Lind

Illustration of debt and borrowing, 1937; photograph © GraphicaArtis/Bridgeman Images.

Americans of the left, right, and center are increasingly hostile to big corporations—but not for the same reasons. Many on the left are deeply uncomfortable with capitalism as such—that is to say, with corporate profit. In contrast, the populist right has turned against “woke” corporations that support transgender ideology, affirmative action, and other public policies conservatives oppose. But this is an objection not to corporate profit but to particular exercises of corporate power. Finally, as a response to US deindustrialization and the rise of China’s industrial and military power, there is growing bipartisan support for economic nationalism and industrial policy, particularly among national security experts in both parties. Here the criticism involves corporate purpose: Should American corporations, by investing or manufacturing in China, build up the economy of a country that is increasingly seen as America’s major rival in the world?

On examination, none of these three critiques can be limited to big corporations. Critics of capitalism are even more likely to disapprove of small businesses, which tend to pay their workers less than big firms and tend as well to be among the fiercest opponents of minimum wage increases, unionization, and other proworker measures. For their part, conservatives are no more likely to approve of progressive virtue signaling and policy advocacy when it is done by small firms instead of large ones. And when it comes to economic nationalism, small- and medium-sized companies as well as national and global behemoths often outsource their manufacturing or service jobs to China and other low-wage countries. Many small businesses, especially in resource-intensive industries such as construction, depend on cheap imported intermediate goods. In other cases, they act as suppliers in global supply chains orchestrated by multinational corporations.

What, then, explains the widespread uneasiness toward big business in today’s America? In 2017, only 21 percent of respondents to a Gallup Poll said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in big business. Contrast that finding with a 1950 poll in which 60 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view.11xCited by Robert D. Atkinson and Michael Lind in “Is Big Business Really That Bad?,” The Atlantic, April 2018,

Clearly, nostalgia for a preindustrial America of small farms and small shops cannot explain these changing numbers. The pro–big business Americans of 1950, many of whom had grown up on farms, were much closer to the world of rural production than today’s American skeptics of big business. Nor is big business an unfamiliar, alien force. Most Americans in the private sector today work for firms with more than 500 employees. In 2022, small businesses (defined as firms with fewer than 500 workers) employed only 46.4 percent of all private sector workers. And of these, only 16 percent were small businesses as most people might define them, with 1 to 19 employees. The rest were “small” only in a statistical sense, with 20 to 499 employees.22xKelly Main, “Small Business Statistics of 2023,” Forbes, December 7, 2022, See generally Robert D. Atkinson and Michael Lind, Big Is Beautiful: Debunking the Myth of Small Business (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).

Americans in the private sector workforce, then, are much more likely to be employed by large firms today than they were in the 1950s, when the popularity of Big Business peaked. Could it be that big firms treat their employees worse today than they did in the mid-twentieth century?

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