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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter June 8, 2012

Firm, Property and Governance: From Berle and Means to the Agency Theory, and Beyond

Olivier Weinstein

Over the last thirty years, the shareholder conception of corporate governance has established itself as the foundation of the power structure and management principles of the corporation. It is based on a specific theorization of the firm: agency theory. Our aim is to explain the full significance of this theorization, by considering the context in which it was developed and the project – of a fundamentally political nature – that it conveys. For that purpose, we return to the questions raised during the first half of the twentieth century, in the seminal book of Berle and Means and in subsequent works by Berle; questions of a much broader scope that the relationship between shareholders and managers. We will show that agency theory can be considered a response to the most important ideas advanced by Berle and Means, and then by Berle (and others), after the New Deal and the Second World War. Comparison of these two themes of reflection leads us to identify two theorizations, and two radically different conceptions of the firm and the corporation. To address these issues, we start by considering the questions raised in the early twentieth century about the nature of the corporation and the status of managers; and how, in response to these questions, Berle constructed a certain conceptualization of the corporation and of managerial capitalism; we shall then revisit the contract-based approach of Jensen and Meckling, to assess the theoretical and ideological content and show how it was actually strongly opposed to Berle’s vision. Lastly, by way of conclusion, we shall endeavor to show how the opposition between these two theorizations should be seen, above all, as an opposition between two theories that are both “performative” rather than positive, and that the apparent success of agency theory and the dominance of shareholder primacy in corporate governance can only be understood in an institutional and political perspective.

Published Online: 2012-6-8

©2012 Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin/Boston

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