Thursday, March 30, 2023

For Profit: A History of Corporations (William Magnuson)

Over time, corporations have grown in size and influence, generating massive amounts of wealth in many cases while “moving fast and breaking things” in others. The history of corporations dates back to before the Roman Empire and have evolved from being private-public partnerships to private entities that generally benefit society at large. In For Profit: A History of Corporations, William Magnuson discusses the history of corporations from their incorporation as a concept in the Roman Republic.

Initially, corporations were established to help the Roman Republic with services and projects by wealthy individuals who teamed up with others to provide capital and resources to Rome as a means to help them in their battles against enemies outside of the Republic’s growing boundaries. Corporations have evolved since then; Magnuson looks at eight examples of different companies and how they impacted both the greater population and the evolution of business. Those impacts changed over time, from the benevolence of the Medici family in Florence to the monies given by Rockerfeller and Carnegie for public libraries and other civic projects. However, Magnuson argues that corporations haven’t always behaved admirably over time.

Magnuson closes the book by arguing for a number of steps that corporations can take to reclaim a spirit of civic virtue, similar to “stakeholder capitalism” that you may hear about in the media. While some of the suggestions are noble if not altruistic, some (such as treating workers right) are common sense approaches that should be adhered to. Magnuson’s book is a concise snapshot of the evolution of corporations over time.