Home > Uncategorized > Scrupulosity IV: Corporations are the Health of the State (thanks to institutionalized moral hazard)

Scrupulosity IV: Corporations are the Health of the State (thanks to institutionalized moral hazard)

I copy below some more of my dialogue with Stephan Kinsella and others, regarding Jeffrey Tucker‘s unhappiness that not all libertarians are cheerleaders for our current model of “capitallism” (see my eariler posts on “scrupulosity“).

Stephan does a great job at wrestling with strawmen, attributing to me positions that I have expressly argued against, and questioning my forthrightness and my dislike for the state:

{Folks apologies if you are seeing disordered paragraphs; the blogging software seems to do that frequently when one copies in various blocks of text. I have added a few numbers to make chronological order clear.)

1.  Stephan Kinsella June 5, 2011 at 8:33 am

Calling shareholders “passive” might be a fair representation of the existing, government-created system – especially for listed, “public” companies, but that’s pretty much my point. This is NOT true of partnership or other traditional types of business organization,

See Hessen et al.–it is true of limited liability partnerships, where you have limited partners who are passive, and general partners who are active.

But even for a general partner–why is he automatically liable for what torts employees commit? this hoary, feudal notion of respondeat superior–you are responsible for your “servants’” actions–is a bit insulting and elitist.

” and the grant of limited liability itself deliberately signals shareholders that they can turn a blind eye to activities that profit the company while posing costs and risks to others.”

If they would not be liable in the first place then it’s not a grant, any more than you, as a Walmart customer, are “granted” limited liability just b/c the law does not currently make you jointly reponsible for torts committed by Walmart employees. I suppose you could argue this “grant” of limited liability to you as customer makes you as customer turn a blind eye to its risky activities. As I said in my post, this broad view of causal responsibiltiy would make everyone in society liable for everyone else all the time, without exception, which is why I analogized it to socialized medicine/Obamacare.

Sure, it’s probably not now “fair” to passive shareholders to “attribute vicarious liability to them … for torts committed by employees”, but that is both a strawman and besides the point. The point is that the government grant of limited liability MAKES A DIFFERENCE;

You keep saying it’s a grant but this is question begging, as this assertion assumes that absent this legal rule they would be liable vicariously under some libertarian principles of causation. I deny that they would. So if you say it’s grant you are arguing dishonestly by assuming your premise.

the strawman is that I am certainly NOT proposing a new rule that shareholders be assigned liability for acts by corporate employees, but simply that the limitation on liability be eliminated

WElt he state should be eliminated of course. There should be no laws whatsoever regarding corporations. I agree with this. The limitation of liability law should be abolished. I of course agree, which shoudl be apparent from reading what I have written since unlike many left-libertarians who are vague and maunder and equivocat and are disingenuous I try like Rothbard to be clear and upfront, and am very openly anti-state. I simply disagree with people like you who explicitly or implicitly propose that in a free society it would be appropriate to automatically hold the equivalent of passive shareholders (whatever you call them) vicariously responsible for others’ torts. If you think removing limited liability would make a difference, this is your implicit view. This is what I disagree with; your distractions seem to be an attempt to cloud the water to make it hard to see that this issue is at the heart of our disagreement.

– just as other grants by the government of liability limits (nuclear power, offshore oil drilling, and pollution permitting generally) should be eliminated.

Yes, I agree, but that is a bad analogy b/c those ARE real limits that do have an effect, unlike the shareholder case which does nothing IMO but ratify the situation that would obtain anyway.

Your assertion that limited liability of shareholders “would also be present in a free society in which private contractual ‘corporations’ arose” is totally unsupported. Can you point to where Rothbard, Hessen or Pilon argue that private contracts that limit liability of investors against voluntary creditors could serve to limit their personal liability against INVOLUNTARY creditors, viz., tort victims?

It’s not contracts that do it. It’s simply the fact that tort victims can pursue the tortfeasor, and the shareholder is not the tortfeasor; and there is no ground for making the shareholder liable vicariously for the employee’s torts.

And yes, see: Rothbard on Corporations and Limited Liability for Tort; Legitimizing the Corporation and Other Posts; Defending Corporations: Block and Huebert; Pilon on Corporations: A Discussion with Kevin Carson; Corporations and Limited Liability for Torts; In Defense of the Corporation

For example, see pilon http://www.stephankinsella.com/wp-content/uploads/texts/ga-l-rev-1979_6.pdf pp. 1310-. for Hessen, see this excerpt,http://www.lewrockwell.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2004/04/Hessen+corporation+tort+liability+excerpts.pdf , pp. 18-20
and http://www.stephankinsella.com/2010/02/rothbard-on-corporations-and-limited-liability-for-tort/ — this last post also quotes Rothbard: “Similarly, if a corporate manager committed a wrong and damaged the person or property of others, there is no reason but “deep pockets” to make the stockholders pay, provided that the latter were innocent and did not order the manager to engage in these tortious actions.”

So, Rothbard, Hessen, Pilon–all hold that passive shareholders are not automatically liable vicariously for torts committed by employees, any more than limited partners would be.

Just as you, surely, have no objection to private agreements between parties to protect the information created by one of them (private “intellectual property”)

I would not call it that. “Intellectual property” is a propaganda term invented recently to justify state grants of monopoly privilege (patent and copyright)http://blog.mises.org/14914/intellectual-properganda/

but simply oppose state-created IP, so too should you (as a lawyer!) be able to understand that in principle, of course, I have no objection to contract-based companies, but oppose the obvious and important favors granted by the state in the case of all corporations?

You are confusing the case for contractual limited liability of shareholders for contractual debts, with the case for shareholders not being liable vicariously for others’ torts. The latter is not based on contract.

2. Not to be missed is that the grant of limited liability is extremely important and consequential:

See: The Cliff Notes version of my stilted enviro-fascist view of corporations and government – TT’s Lost in Tokyo http://bit.ly/9oBkC7

It has allowed owners to divorce themselves from formal reponsibility for the acts of their agents/employees, to divorce themselves from the communities in which their firms act, and to dodge claims of moral responsibility.

So what? this is not a justification for a law. It’s just some “policy” musings.

So we are left with massive corporations which are massively entangled with government

That’s b/c there is a state (which you favor, not me; I’m the anarchist), not b/c of the way people would create firms on the free market

and are powerful buyers of favors, which citizens forever clamor for “more control!”, and which lack any clear locus of responsibility — and in which we find anarchist libertarians like yourself and Lew Rockwell acting as their lawyers, and calling them and their shareholders “the biggest victims” (not the little people on the short end of the stick of projects like Gulf oil drilling, nuclear reactor meltdowns or even mundane health/air/water/soil damage from pollution)

Emotivism. You are not making an argument. It is not unlibertarian to have a view as to who is victimized by a given state policy. In fact the central state whose legitimacy you yourself support claims the overlord/landlord status in the offshore continental shelf; BP held a lease. It was your central state that is the landlord whose tenant had the oil spill. By your principles of vicarious responsibilty where you want to willy nilly say some old lady holding a single share of BP stock should be personally liable for this tort, of course the landlord should be too, right? I.e., your state is responsible, so why are you blaming me for favoring private investors in a free society, when you support the very state’s existence, the state that is responsible for the BP spill in the first place? And of course the nuclear industry is heavily distorted and corrupted by the state; Chernobyl was teh state’s fault, and the entire meltdown-prone western nuclear industry was corrupted by your beloved state for military reasons — instead of safe Thorium we needed the current system to produce nuclear weaponshttp://www.libertarianstandard.com/2011/04/01/the-states-corruption-of-nuclear-power/

So blaming this on private investors is rich. It’s the state’s fault, as usual. You think that getting rid of one of the few state laws that happens to mimic the likely result on a free market (limited liability for passive shareholders) is what you should focus on?!

As Mises long ago noted, moral hazard matters.

This is how statists and law professors reason. It is not how libertarians reason. We believe in individual rights–property rights–and have principles. we don’t run around “weighing” various “policy reasons” to tweak and fine tune statist positive law.

3. While in principle any partnership can keep going even when one partner dies or decides to leave and new partners are added, surely you are aware that this is a very cumbersome process, not in small part because of the concerns that the partners and its lenders, suppliers and customers all have about who, precisely, is managing the business and who has liability for potential losses?

Nonsense. SEe the Hessen excerpt above, p. 17, regarding how partnerships or firms can easily make the firm effectively immortal by use of continuity agreements. This is not hard.

Just as for limited liability,

More question begging, as I have explained

the grants of legal entity status,

this is not a gift but an unnecessary status that the state uses to justify regulation and double taxation of shareholders. In a free market firms would not have legal personality nor do they need to. Hessen has already explained this almost 30 years ago.

unlimited life,

See Hessen, last mention above. This can be done contractualy.

unlimited purposes and the ability to own subsidiaries are all substantial AND consequence-laden gifts from the state.

The purpose is whatever the shareholders agree to. It has nothing to do with the state just as marriage should not. Ownign a subsidiary is not a privilege but just another contractual private scheme. Nothing you described is a gift fromt he state. All these features are doable privately and contractualy, except for entity theory which is not a gift but a penalty.

Show me a partnership that has any of these, without a grant from the state.

This is like asking me to show you a 100% reserve bank. They are not used now b/c the state’s fractional reserve/guaranteed system outcompetes it. If I want a perpetual firm I just use a corporation b/c the state provides this mechanism. In a free market people would have to do it privately contractually, on their own; I have no idea if they would be called limited partnerships, LLP, LLC, or what. Who cares? IT’s just a detail. Get the state out of the way, and we’ll see.

Waht i object to is your clamoring for shareholders to be liable, when you have no theory whatsoever undergirding this.

The state creation of corporations has do much to muddle who, exactly, is responsible for injuries to third parties caused by “the corporation”.

So what, really? In most cases the corporation pays the victim, and has assets to do so.

Getting rid of limited liability would do much to provide moral clarity,

Again, this is question begging, b/c you are assuming there would and should be liability for shareholders absent the limitation of liability law.

I would note that, just as if deposit insurance were eliminated, market actors would step up to advise on which banks are safe and to provide deposit insurance, so too would insurers step up if limited liability were ended.

We are NOT talking about bringing down capitalism.

I know, but this still does not justify your claim that shareholders should be liable vicariously for the torts of others. What is your theory of causal responsibility? I have tried to sketch one out — http://mises.org/journals/qjae/pdf/qjae7_4_7.pdf — and see no way to hold passive shareholders liable; confirming the reasoning on the same lines of Hessen, Pilon, and Rothbard.

TokyoTom June 5, 2011 at 10:00 am

Stephan, of course the state is also at fault when statist corporations do stupid s**t like in the case of BP and TEPCO, and I’ve been arguing the case against the state as landlord loudly here for years now.

” claim that shareholders should be liable vicariously for the torts of others.”

You keep asserting this, even though I’ve made careful efforts to make it clear that I make no such claim. Do you anarcho-capitalists have such a difficult time reading? (By the way, since the boxes you want to put people in matter so much to you, I’m not by my own consideration “left” anything.)

I simply want to end the state creation of corporations, in particular the grant of limited liability to shareholders. You think it doesn’t matter and fight tooth and nail to defend corporations that lack any clear personal moral locus, while I think it has mattered and still quite profoundly, not the least in providing the rationale for the regulatory state.

Just as deposit insurance is at the root of rampant moral hazard in our financial sector, so too is limited liability at the root of corporate statism.

Sorry, but it’s late and I have a full day tomorrow. But I’ll ask, what INDIVIDUALS would you hold responsible for the BP oil spill and TEPCO bad decisions?

nate-m June 5, 2011 at 10:49 am

I simply want to end the state creation of corporations, in particular the grant of limited liability to shareholders. You think it doesn’t matter and fight tooth and nail to defend corporations that lack any clear personal moral locus, while I think it has mattered and still quite profoundly, not the least in providing the rationale for the regulatory state.

” claim that shareholders should be liable vicariously for the torts of others.”You keep asserting this, even though I’ve made careful efforts to make it clear that I make no such claim.

So you do not think that share holders should be liable for actions of employees, but you think that the legal framework that prevents share holders being liable for the actions of the employees should be removed?

It seems that these two statements are diametrically opposed under the current system. If you do not think that share holders should be liable then the way you achieve this is via LLC.

The only alternative is to go full AnCap with a contract-based legal framework, but that’s not going to happen any time soon.

If you remove LLC protections then your making shareholders liable vicariously for the torts of others.


2. TokyoTom June 5, 2011 at 6:47 pm

I suspect that Stephan’s lack of my response to my most recent comment to himhttp://blog.mises.org/17179/scrupulosity-and-the-condemnation-of-every-existing-business/comment-page-1/#comment-785116
indicates that he finally understands the difference between (1) a government rule absolving shareholders from personal liability for acts of the corporate legal fiction or its agents and (2) the absence of such a clear limitation of risk, which would leave shareholders subject to the risk of claims and a possible finding of liability.

There is quite a difference, and it can be seen in the choice of corporate founders to use the limited liability form, as opposed to alternatives that leave shareholders/investors on the hook, such as partnerships, corporations where shareholders expressly have no liability limitations (Amex was one such when it was created) or where shares are not fully paid in (and the corporation has a capital call), and in the continuing pressure by owners of partnerships to get governments to create entity forms that absolve owners of liability for damages to involuntary creditors.

nate-m, does this help understand my point? http://blog.mises.org/17179/scrupulosity-and-the-condemnation-of-every-existing-business/comment-page-1/#comment-785121

I am not saying we should have a rule that automatically makes shareholders liable for acts by the corporation and its agents, but that we should end the government rule that frees them from risk – and the incentives to oversee and monitor that risk.

The consequence of limited liability has been the steady growth of the regulatory state, and of use of the regulatory state by corporations (via CEOs who have slipped shareholder control) to create barriers to entry.

Just like we can end financial regulation by ending deposit insurance and forcing depositors to monitor banks, so too can we end the regulatory state by making shareholders pay attention to the risks created by corporations.



Stephan Kinsella June 5, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Your comments are incoherent, Tom. waht in the world are you trying to say.


TokyoTom June 5, 2011 at 9:14 pm

I’ll make it simple, so even a non-lefty, non-stupid and non-dishonest anarcho-cap lawyer can understand:

The state grant of limited liability to shareholders, besides simply being unjustifiable under libertarian principles, has, by reducing the need of shareholders to monitor risk, had a profound affect on the development of what we now call ‘capitalism’ and on the growth of the regulatory state in response to complaints about corporate excesses.

I restated this position last September in the comment thread to a post by Geoffrey Plauche:

“Your uncertainty here is a manifestation of the confused discussion over liability for “corporate torts”that Stephan Kinsella refers to. His position is that only humans act, and not corporations (though they are given “legal entity” status), so only particular persons who actually injured someone else (and those who directed/ordered their actions) should be liable for any tort – not the corporation itself (and certainly not shareholders, unless they were personally involved somehow). I agree that granting corporate status has greatly confused discussions over whom should be liable for corporate torts, and think Stephan too lightly brushes back the enormous and anonymous torts that our now massive corporations commit — precisely what individuals, for example, is responsible for the BP disaster, for the damage to health and property caused by pollution, or for injuries resulting from faulty products?

“Rolling back limited liability should not mean that shareholders SHOULD be held liable for corporate torts in the same way that executives, managers and employees (the first two benefiting from company-purchased insurance policies) and sometimes lenders are; it would just mean that they would get no government-provided “get out of jail free” card. In this way, common shareholders would be put on a similar footing to partners in a partnership that acts through paid managers.”

The facts that the state now makes the corporate form widely available and that we have huge, statist corporations do not make the status quo acceptable, just as the state’s generosity in making IP widely available and that many are now invested in the status quo doesn’t justify IP or validate all the damage it’s causing.

But despite your ancap identity, you (and Lew Rockwell) keep rushing out to defend our system of amoral and anonymous pools of capital, rather than real people:


Thankfully, others are seeing this re limited liability:

Finally an LvMI commentator who sees the elephant in the room: effective reform to rein in rampant moral hazard at banks means removing limited liability! – TT’s Lost in Tokyo http://bit.ly/atelEr

The Curse of Limited Liability; WSJ.com: Executives/traders of big financial corporations generate risky business, while smaller partnerships are much more risk averse – TT’s Lost in Tokyohttp://bit.ly/8nlWr7




3. TokyoTom June 5, 2011 at 7:14 pm

Block points to corporate moral hazard as a dynamic behind the rise of the regulatory state:

Limited liability produces both pollution and political meddling: Block on Environmentalism – TT’s Lost in Tokyo http://bit.ly/mvV4Qn

Ludwig von Mises on laws that cap risks: http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2007/10/11/draft.aspx

“The laws concerning liability and indemnification for damages caused were and still are in some respects deficient. By and large the principle is accepted that everybody is liable to damages which his actions have inflicted upon other people. But there were loopholes left which the legislators were slow to fill. In some cases this tardiness was intentional because the imperfections agreed with the plans of the authorities. When in the past in many countries the owners of factories and railroads were not held liable for the damages which the conduct of their enterprises inflicted on the property and health of neighbors, patrons, employees, and other people through smoke, soot, noise, water pollution, and accidents caused by defective or inappropriate equipment, the idea was that one should not undermine the progress of industrialization and the development of transportation facilities. The same doctrines which prompted and still are prompting many governments to encourage investment in factories and railroads through subsidies, tax exemption, tariffs, and cheap credit were at work in the emergence of a legal state of affairs in which the liability of such enterprises was either formally or practically abated.”

“Whether the proprietor’s relief from responsibility for some of the disadvantages resulting from his conduct of affairs is the outcome of a deliberate policy on the part of governments and legislators or whether it is an unintentional effect of the traditional working of laws, it is at any rate a datum which the actors must take into account. They are faced with the problem of external costs. Then some people choose certain modes of want-satisfaction merely on account of the fact that a part of the costs incurred are debited not to them but to other people. …

“It is true that where a considerable part of the costs incurred are external costs from the point of view of the acting individuals or firms, the economic calculation established by them is manifestly defective and their results deceptive. But this is not the outcome of alleged deficiencies inherent in the system of private ownership of the means of production. It is on the contrary a consequence of loopholes left in this system. It could be removed by a reform of the laws concerning liability for damages inflicted and by rescinding the institutional barriers preventing the full operation of private ownership.”


Stephan Kinsella June 5, 2011 at 7:36 pm

What is your question, exactly?


TokyoTom June 5, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Not a question, but a response to your claim that my concern about “moral hazard” and CONSEQUENCES and somehow taints me and is non-libertarian:

“This is how statists and law professors reason. It is not how libertarians reason. We believe in individual rights–property rights–and have principles. we don’t run around “weighing” various “policy reasons” to tweak and fine tune statist positive law.

Balderdash: we all care about consequences, which is the chief reason why people are paying the slightest attention to your ‘principled’ ragings about IP.


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  1. TokyoTom
    June 7th, 2011 at 00:16 | #1

    FD, thanks for your comment, but my point is more subtle.

    Just like deposit insurance means depositors don’t pay attention to whether or not bankers engage in risky activities, so too does limited liability mean that shareholders are not investing in managing risk.

    Shareholders should be overseeing companies or banks, not governments, but that’s precisely the situation we find ourselves in.

    Could government’s efforts to “protect” us have anything to do with poor management and decisions that benefit executives and traders, but harm shareholders, depositors and third parties?

  2. FDominicus
    June 6th, 2011 at 10:54 | #2

    The problem is management and bureaucrats try everything to not beeing held responsible. And the are quite successfull to eliminate any kind of supervision of the owners. The people supposed to supervise are managers themselves elsewhere. So how could one expect supervision, and share holders have not chance of it because many of them to not supervise but ask there bank to “vote” for them.

    So IMHO it’s unfair to get to the share holders first. At first one had to get managers having to see the results of their doing in their own purse.

    This has not happened anywhere in the failout- period of the last 2 – 3 years…..

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