Home > Uncategorized > Matt Ridley, the "Rational Optimist," blasts Japan’s "Nuclear Crony Capitalism" but fails to examine limited liability corporations

Matt Ridley, the "Rational Optimist," blasts Japan’s "Nuclear Crony Capitalism" but fails to examine limited liability corporations

Matt Ridley, British author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, and populat TED presenter “When Ideas Have Sex“), has a couple of blog posts out in response to Japan’s troubled post-earthquake and post-tsunami nuclear reactors owned by TEPCO.

In a somewhat ironic post, “Nuclear Crony Capitalism“, Ridley first notes that the troubles at TEPCO’s Fukushima plants have caused environmentalist George Monbiot to change his mind about nuclear power  — and to SUPPORT it, as demonstrating the low risks of nuclear power. (I find this perverse by both Monbiot and Ridley, as radiation releases from four of the reactors have already done substantial damage to people, property and livelihoods in the Fukushima region, as well as to cause grave concerns in Tokyo and indeed, globally. Moreover, the situation is not yet stabilized, strong earthquakes continue, and strong radiation in the vicinity of the plants is seriosuly hampering efforts to regain control over the plants and ope-air spent fuel rod pools.)

Yet despite his views on the safety of nuclear power (he noted a few days ago in the WSJ that much safer designs may be available, and that the TEPCO designs are a product of the Cold War and nuclear bomb production designs), Ridley castigates Japan’s government and nuclear power industry.(emphasis added) [readers, html is a pain. If the quote isn’t here, it’s the italicized text that wants to be at the bottom.]

What worries me is the economics of an electricity generating industry that requires massive capital projects, whose costs usually over-run and whose costs per kilowatt hour are roughly double those of the newest gas turbines. … But a perceptive article by Shikha Dalmia explains where nuclear’s flaws come from — its symbiotic relationship with government. Nuclear power requires, demands and gets subsidies of many different kinds.

That’s exactly the problem with crony capitalism, whether in finance or energy or anything else. The `market’ and `capitalists’ are not on the same side and against `government’. No, its government and capitalists colluding against the market, which is on the side of the people. The `financial market’ proved to be no such thing; it was a casino for favoured clients run by central banks. The `energy market’ is no such thing. It is a scheme run by governments for favoured clients in the nuclear, renewable and environmental-pressure group industries.

As Adam Smith so astutely observed,

The proposal of any new law or regulation which comes from [businessmen], ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.


Nice to see Ridley both recognizing the corrupt and skewing dynamics, AND taking not merely government but the industry itself to task, TEPCO and its finaciers are, after all, real people who have moral responsibility for their own actions – right? – whether they are aware of such responsibility or not.

Unfortunately, Ridley, like Dalmia, fails to extend his analysis to the state-created corporate structure itself, which systematically shifts risks from shareholders and managers to the public at large, particularly via the grant of limited liability to shareholders, which reduces incentives for shareholders to care about risks to others and exacerbates the “agency problem” which leaves managers as essentially unsupervised actors who typically do not bear liability for so-called “corporate torts” – thus leaving the “corporation” as a legal fiction without a clear locus of responsibility or liability.

The grant of limited liability is of course the driving feature for choosing the main corporate form over other alternatives (Amex was long a coproaton whose shareholders had unlimited liability), and why corporations establish subsidiaries (US nuclear plants are virtually all held by different legal entities), and why traditional partnerhips have pushed for LLC and LLP entity forms that retain partnership-like tax treatment but no personal liability.

One hopes that some day our leading lights will devote a little time to exploring the obvious perverse incentives and massive negative consequences generated by the state-created corporate form. What we have instead is a sympathy for faceless corporate “victims” of a faceless state, and a beside-the-point defense of the poor existing, irresponsible shareholders, which didn’t bargain for a downside risk. Shall libertarians forever defensd this Heads I Win, Tails You Lose mentality? Do they have so little faith that, if limited shareholder liability was NOT granted by the state, that shareholders would not increase their diligence, or engage insurers to mitigate risks?

I note that I pointed out the issue of the corporate form itself to Matt Ridley, he responded with a “very interesting”. Stay tuned!



Posted by, TokyoTom [follow link to cross-post here]

Matt, great post — but I think you’ve only barely scratched the surface on the ‘crony capitalism’ institutionalization of risk.

I’ve spent a bit of time delving into this at my blog that Ludwig von Mises Inst kindly hosts:

– Sorry, but I can’t resist asking: Feel Sorry for Tokyo Electric Power Co?, http://bit.ly/emZo3E ‘a tribute to Lew Rockwell’s ‘Feel Sorry for BP?’)

– Institutionalized moral hazard: Fun with Nuclear Power in Japan, or, prepare for a glowing twilight, with scattered fallout in the morning, http://bit.ly/hvvWHU

– My posts exploring the ramifications of the state grant of ‘limited liability’ corporation status:http://bit.ly/f7awsx

– The case of BP: http://bit.ly/hHeu1N

– Not surprisingly, similar issues arise with respect to the rest of the Govt-licensed energy sector and climate: http://bit.ly/fRyqtw

Thus small things contribute to the Road to Serfdom: http://bit.ly/gsLXe3 http://bit.ly/9oBkC7

I hope you’ll take your concern for nuclear crony capitalism even further.


Wednesday 30th March 2011 – 04:39am


Posted by, Matt Ridley


very interesting. Thanks. will follow up.


Wednesday 30th March 2011 – 04:54am
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