American Apparel Demonstrates a Fundamental Principle of Capitalism

The American Apparel board of directors has ousted the company’s founder. The company stock jumped up nearly 20% on the announcement. Contrary to what we see in the movies, being a successful founder of a big company does not entitle one to kick back, smoke cigars, and let the profits roll in. Dov Charney had some innovative ideas about clothing and about turning a small enterprise into a global chain, but his personal failings became damaging, so he had to go.

An interesting question to ask is “who works for whom?” A week ago we might have thought that American Apparel worked for Charney, and not the other way around, but we would have been wrong. The board that fired him is itself beholden to the shareholders; the old share price (before the 20% jump) was the result of investors restricting their investments in the company because its bad CEO made it less appealing than some alternative investments. And who are the shareholders beholden to?

They are beholden to the consumers. Ultimately, any return on an investment in American Apparel can only come from satisfying consumer wants. If consumers decided tomorrow that they would never buy another pair of neon green skinny jeans, American Apparel’s stockholders would take a massive loss as they tried to sell off their now-worthless shares.

Ludwig von Mises said it best:

The market economy — capitalism — is based on private ownership of the material means of production and private entrepreneurship. The consumers, by their buying or abstention from buying, ultimately determine what should be produced and in what quantity and quality. They render profitable the affairs of those businessmen who best comply with their wishes and unprofitable the affairs of those who do not produce what they are asking for most urgently. Profits convey control of the factors of production into the hands of those who are employing them for the best possible satisfaction of the most urgent needs of the consumers, and losses withdraw them from the control of the inefficient businessmen. In a market economy not sabotaged by the government the owners of property are mandataries of the consumers as it were. On the market a daily repeated plebiscite determines who should own what and how much. It is the consumers who make some people rich and other people penniless.” Mises, Inequality of Wealth and Incomes, 1955