business, cooperatives, distributism, economy, free market economies, parapolitics, socialism, varieties of capitalism
Thinking about how to make an economic system that is more humane, and less riven by class struggles, many social reformers have advocated for workers’ cooperatives (the Distributists being one example). Cooperatives differ from the traditional capitalist firm in that workers share ownership and management of the company, as opposed to being salaried employees with no participation in the profits besides what management feels like giving them. They differ from a socialist commune in that there is still private property, and individuals can benefit directly from the success of the firm, which tends to mitigate the typical Socialist tendency of “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work” and lead to more creativity and enterprise.
With these advantages, why hasn’t the cooperative become more popular in the United States? In part, because cooperatives come with some drawbacks. First, if workers share ownership in the company, what happens when you hire new people? Does that mean that you’ve just diluted the ownership of the existing employees? If so, then there will be a tendency of the owner-employees to delay hiring more people, even if it means sacrificing business opportunities. Or do different classes of employees have different shares of ownership? If so, then the cooperative differs from a typical capitalist firm only by degrees.
How much of the ownership of the firm accrues to the investors, as opposed to the employees? After all, without the initial investment, there would likely be no business in the first place. And asking employees themselves to buy in, as some cooperatives do, places a high bar in front of poor job-seekers.
Additionally, there will always be a place in a large-sized firm for experts of some kind, who will be paid more for their expertise. Should such experts, be they management or whoever, also get a disproportionate share of the company?
All of these questions have answers, and the answers will vary depending on the particular needs of each cooperative. But even if you could come up with an ideal structure for your own situation, it is far from clear that existing law could support the ownership structure you want. To my knowledge, in the United States the most common means for employee ownership of their company is the ESOP, or Employer Stock Option Plan, and these are typically structured so that employees have partial ownership without true control. While American law has well-understood prototypes for traditional capitalist firms, like the C-Corporation or the S-Corp, there are few prototypes for worker-owned cooperatives.
If such prototypes existed, then new insights could be gained as people experimented with them and figured out what works and what does not in different contexts. And cooperatives could become more accepted in modern industrial economies—which is not to say that they would displace the typical capitalist firm entirely, or even mostly. Each firm structure solves different problems. The best structure depends on your own situation, and the imperatives of your industry. Still, more options are good.
One handicap of your typical utopian social reformers is that they tend to focus on parapolitics, action outside the system, rather than trying to work within the system. True, such parapolitics often has an effect, but you only get mass adoption of your ideas in the face of total collapse of the system you are opposing. In this case, those who seek to have the cooperative form catch on in society ought to be lobbying for its inclusion in the tax code, the same way that a C-Corp or S-Corp is. With an off-the-shelf model to work with, with well-understood procedures for sharing ownership and profits, more entrepreneurs may elect the cooperative model without any political or social goal at all—which is how you win.