Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 102, Issue 3, pp 421–438 | Cite as

Behavioral Economics, Federalism, and the Triumph of Stakeholder Theory



Stakeholder theorists distinguish between normative stakeholders, those who gain moral standing by making contributions to the firm, and derivative stakeholders, those who can constrain the corporate association even though they make no contribution. The board of directors has the legal authority to distinguish among these stakeholder groups and to distribute rights and obligations among these stakeholder groups. To be sure, this stakeholder formulation appropriately seizes on the firm’s voluntary, associative character. Yet, the firm’s constituents contribute assets and incur risks to participate in market, economic activities. And, as such, the firm’s “stakeholders” must share an imperfect language to assist in making two key economic decisions: (1) who are the legitimate and who are the derivative stakeholders; and (2) who should sit on the board? Still, stakeholder theorists have good reason to be skeptical of neoclassical economics. Its assumptions that all act opportunistically and that all can calculate rationally and fully hardly correspond to studies on the managerial experience of corporate coordination. However, advances in behavioral law and economics now provide a cogent economic logic that readily fits into a stakeholder mode. In brief, we argue that (1) the firm’s economic purpose designates legitimacy to core stakeholders, to those who add value, assume unique risk, and can incur harm; (2) the board serves as the principal who coordinates these core stakeholders to sustain competitive advantage and new wealth creation; and (3) state incorporation law, Delaware in particular, reinforces the board’s function. These, in turn, supply selection criteria for board membership. We aim to synchronize concepts from behavioral law and economics with stakeholder theory.


behavioral economics stakeholder theory corporate governance board of directors team production 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of New HampshireDurhamU.S.A.
  2. 2. School of Business, George Washington University,WashingtonU.S.A.

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