Home > Uncategorized > Beyond ‘Nuclear Crony Capitalism’: Does state-created corporations mean we are stuck with a wonderfully confused ‘capitalist’ mess of socialized risk?

Beyond ‘Nuclear Crony Capitalism’: Does state-created corporations mean we are stuck with a wonderfully confused ‘capitalist’ mess of socialized risk?

Last night I was Sleepless in Tokyo because Matt Ridley and one of his commenters rewarded, with nice words and questions, a comment I left there on his “Nuclear Crony Capitalism” post.

So naturally I wrote more.

Here’s the relevant comment thread, plus my excited scribblings at the bottom (now up; thanks, Matt!). Skip to the bottom if you’re in a rush:

Posted by, TokyoTom (not verified)

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://tokyotom.freecapitalists.org/2011/03/27/39-resist-feel-tokyo-electric-power/, 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://tokyotom.freecapitalists.org/2011/03/26/institutionalized-moral-hazard-fun-nuclear-power-japan-prepare-glowing-twilight-scattered-fallout-morning/

– My posts exploring the ramifications of the state grant of ‘limited liability’ corporation status: http://tokyotom.freecapitalists.org/?s=limited+liability

 – The case of BP: http://tokyotom.freecapitalists.org/?s=BP+gulf

 – Not surprisingly, similar issues arise with respect to the rest of the Govt-licensed energy sector and climate: http://tokyotom.freecapitalists.org/?s=climate+liability

 Thus small things contribute to the Road to Serfdom: http://tokyotom.freecapitalists.org/2011/03/27/rot-core-prophetic-words-hayek-grim-threat-posed-erosion-quot-market-morals-quot/ and http://tokyotom.freecapitalists.org/?s=prophetic+words+from+hayek+grim+threat

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


Posted by, Robin Guenier (not verified)


This is an intriguing post …. If one agrees (and I do) that the moral hazard enjoyed by financial institutions is deplorable, then logically it’s impossible not to take the same view of crony capitalism and nuclear power. And, as j ferguson and Tom have pointed out, it doesn’t end there. For example, I’ve been involved with the UK defence industry and recently with the appalling NHS computer system – in both cases, I’ve seen huge overruns and vast sums wasted. Classic examples, I suggest, of “government and capitalists colluding against the market”: neither the government nor its suppliers are penalised; all the pain is passed onto the public. And, if that is unacceptable – and surely it is – it’s hard to dispute Tom’s conclusion that the state grant of limited liability may be the problem: “one of the key roots of snowballing corporate statism”.

And yet … and yet: the industrial revolution and the huge benefits it has provided to society were built on the foundation of limited liability. Moreover, many major projects that would not have been implemented without an alliance between capitalists and government have turned out to be widely beneficial despite seemingly inevitable delays and cost overruns.

Is there a distinction to be drawn and, if so, where?


Wednesday 30th March 2011 – 07:32am


Posted by, Matt Ridley


Yes. I agree with both points you make and see what you mean about limited liability’s role and the importance of govt-driven infrastructure. Compulsory purchase for railways and canals springs to mind: easier in Birtain than in France.

Not quite on the same lines, but sometimes I get criticised for being too hard on government and I reply that if Carnegie and Rockefeller and Maxwell were bad, then they weren’t half as bad as Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot.

I hope to get time to dig further into this issue.


Wednesday 30th March 2011 – 10:59am

My follow-up thoughts (readers may be disappointed that I haven’t loaded this down to cross-references to relevant posts from this blog):

Robin, your statement that “the industrial revolution and the huge benefits it has provided to society were built on the foundation of limited liablity” is a statement of fact – not one necessarily of causation – but so has been our financial house of cards: banks are corporations, shareholders have limited liability (and megabanks are public cos in which shareholders are even further removed from oversight), and depositors are insured by Uncle Same. As a result, depositors don’t bother to check out what a crapload of risk that traders and execs are piling on in order to get bonuses, and Uncle Sam and his legions of wizards set up regulations that the smart boys at Goldman and lawyers figure out how to finesse to load up ever more risk at the lowest possible capital – BANG! And all thanks to the wonders of institutionalized misincentives!

Sure, we got wonderful things from complex organizations, all of which remain in check somewhat by competitions. But there’s been a lot of abuse, alot of risk-shifting, alot of Superfund sites, alot of barriers to entry raised by the very regulations whose purported intent is to rein in the bad behavior, massive statism, and a ball and chain of costly and intrusive IP legislation and enforcement.

I’ve given a very short summary of the dynamics at this post but it’s a fairly obvious and understandable game of whack-a-mole, where government and the big boys – with their unlimited lives, purposes, facelessness, deep pockets and revolving doors – always seems to benefit while ordinary citizens and smaller firms and potential rivals get whacked.

It is very clear that limited liability of shareholders is a gift from government at the expense of un-consenting creditors (‘victims’ IOW), and thus is a subsidy from the public as a whole to the wealthier classes who owned corporations and still by and large are the shareholder class.

Corporations used to be very rare – the grants have a very dubious history, typically one of false justifications of offering a ‘public good’ in exchange for monopoly rights. The owners of very limited life, limited purpose firms somehow always managed to get the special deal extended. So we got bigger firms and more corruption, and labor unions and then regulations and workers and citizens finally started to get fed up.

The widespread statism and government-provided social welfarism – now falling into cynical kleptocracy and fuelling a breakdown in initiative, integrity and other virtues Hayek saw are necessary for market-based wealth generation to works to work – we now see are part of the price we’ve paid. The other part of course is damage to peoples’ lives, property, communities and to whatever public or community property that corporations can get their hands on and strip, without have an owner’s incentive to balance possible revenues over the long run.

Is this kit and caboodle a necessary part of “capitalism”? I don’t think so. Wall street banks and investment firms were private partnership for most of their lives, Amex was a listed corporation who owners had UNLIMITED liability, and Lloyds of London itself was not a firm but a private MARKET of names who all had unlimited liability. Many firms used to have only partially paid-in shares, so that managers had a call in case more capital was needed for new projects or to pay off debt.

Just because we’ve democratized corporate formation by opening the floodgates of socializing risk to anyone doesn’t mean ways can’t be found to put an end to institutionalized moral hazard. Eliminating unlimited liability would shift risk and responsibility for oversight back to a conveniently truant shareholder class from government and the public at large. It would of course mean that people not in a position to evaluate risks would be less likely to invest, making firms work harder to earn trust and get capital. Credit evaluation, rating agencies and insurers would all compete to step into the breach and to lower and spread risk.

Better-managed firms are more profitable than the big Frankensteins we have lumbering around these days; while reform would not happen overnight, it is not only desirable but possible. Firms whose shareholders bear the risk that they may be held liable for damages can be expected to be more cautious and thus could be exempted from the regulations that have been found needed for the Frankensteins. Thus both risks and barriers to entry could be lowered, and consumers and could determine what works best. Other initial steps could be to encourage firms whose shareholders have only fractionally paid-in shares. In the US, at least, corporations are creatures on state law, so just one state is needed to start such an experiment (which would be possible and protectable under the Constitution).

Well I’ve run on quite a bit in my excitement. My sincere apologies! Let me toddle off for a wee bit of sleep.



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