Among the major forms of corporate ownership, the not-for-profit ownership form is distinct in its behavior, legal constraints, and moral obligations. A new empirical analysis of the American hospital industry, using eleven years of data for all urban general hospitals in the country, shows that corporate form accounts for large differences in the provision of specific medical services. Not-for-profit hospitals systematically provide both private and public goods that are in the public interest, and that other forms fail to provide.
Two hypotheses are proposed to account for the findings, one legal and one moral. While no causal claims are made, not-for-profit hospital behavior is consistent with the behavior required by law and morality. The moral argument, developed as a preliminary theory of not-for-profit ethics, also provides a potential reason to prefer not-for-profit hospitals. The findings provide a new justification for the not-for-profit tax exemption for hospitals, and also suggest new uses for ownership categories as regulatory tools.