Citizen Murdoch-A Case Study in the Paradox of Economic Efficiency

By Freedman, Craig | Journal of Economic Issues, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Citizen Murdoch-A Case Study in the Paradox of Economic Efficiency


Freedman, Craig, Journal of Economic Issues


Success has ruined many a man.

- Benjamin Franklin

Rupert Murdoch, mephisto of the media, disciple of the global village, personifies the modern corporate entrepreneur. He seems to embody the condition of alertness that Kirzner [1979] considers to be synonymous with the entrepreneur's motive role in a market economy. As a premier opportunist, Murdoch has displayed an uncanny ability to seize the economic moment in his quest for greater market penetration and growth. Unhindered by the usual corporate constraints, the trademark of his rise has been speed of decision and efficient use of resources. Yet in 1990, Murdoch found himself teetering on the brink of economic disaster, at the mercy of a very nervous lot of creditors.

Such a stunning reversal of fortune would seem to focus attention almost exclusively on the entrepreneurial psychology driving Rupert Murdoch's ambition. If we see his creation, News Corporation, as a simple reflection of his own desires, then the force of Murdoch's personality should make any mere economic explanation of events woefully inadequate. Appearances though are misleading.

The difficulties that News Corporation faced had more to do with the way markets operate than with Murdoch's psychology. His internal devils may have exacerbated the underlying problems, as did a governance structure that relied too heavily on one person's vision. These did not, however, create the problem. The market forces that constrained the development of News Corporation caused it to face problems that were no different in kind, though perhaps in degree, than those that plague other firms. To evaluate this claim, we need to develop an appropriate analytic framework.

The Use of Appropriate Metaphors

. . . in most economic problems the best starting point is to be found in the motives that affect the individual regarded not indeed as an isolated atom, but as a member of some particular trade or industrial group [Marshall, quoted in Mental and Maital 1984, 19].

The problem of understanding the firm involves a choice of paradigms; the biological, favored by Marshall but rarely pursued, or the mechanical, more amenable to the calculus of individual choice than noteworthy for its compelling assumptions or rhetoric.(1)

The choice of an organic approach necessarily implies the study of growth and decay, a sequence of ordered events. By their very nature, these are events constrained to unfold in a limited, though not necessarily predictable, manner. This does not rule out random events, but it does imply path dependence. A developmental sequence eliminates certain options and makes others more difficult to achieve.(2)

The specific actions needed to prosper under one set of circumstances may be detrimental to continuing success, given an unanticipated set of future events.(3) Firms too well adapted to a specific environment find that they lose their ability to adjust to unforeseen changes in that environment. These firms are then at a competitive disadvantage similar to that suffered by badly managed firms - those that fail to use their available resources to seize present opportunities. Either over- or under-committing resources can yield equally regrettable results. A firm that is successful over time must steer a course somewhere between these extremes.

A firm is a set of defining relationships. The various groups that define the firm, both internally and externally, and their interconnections are analogous to so many political constituencies.(4) The process of making and meeting commitments to constituents conveys the political, rather than the legal, nature of the firm. In a sense, the firm must perform like a political ward-healer, meshing together disparate constituencies into one smoothly functioning operation. All the multi-hued and conflicting interests of these groups must be addressed to some degree if a firm is to survive.(5)

In a market economy, a firm must make a set of contractual commitments (explicit or implicit) before production can proceed. …

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