"He's a snake in the grass, I tell ya guys; he may look dumb but that's just a disguise; he's a mastermind in the ways of espionage." Charlie Daniels, "Uneasy Rider" OMG - those ecofascists hate statist corps, too, and even want to - GASP - end that oh-so-libertarian state grant of limited liability! - TT's Lost in Tokyo

OMG - those ecofascists hate statist corps, too, and even want to - GASP - end that oh-so-libertarian state grant of limited liability!

Such is the tone of a deep, searching piece on the Mises Economic Blog  by budding philosopher Geoffrey Allan Plauche, "Ecofascism in the Name of Fending Off Ecofascism".

Sometimes I scratch my head at why, when enviros in panicked tones cast about for ways to come to grips with statism, including latching onto the clearly non-libertarian grant of limited liability to corporate shareholders, libertarians and Austrian economists cannot see an opportunity to find allies in striking at the roots of statism -- but then I recall man's tribal nature and remember that Miseseans are as prone to anyone else to prefer a good hate. When an enemy is in sight, discussing principles and logically analyzing problems just isn't any fun!

Plauche refers to an article where one commentator makes what Plauche describes as three "authoritarian environmental and anti-market proposals". One of the  "ecofascist solution[s includes] the revocation of corporate power", to be effectuated in part through the "authoritarian means of eliminating limited liability". Complains Plauche, "only corporations are to blame and government is the solution". Oh, those stupid enviros, thinking they must use government to undo what government has done! One wonders how else one might possibly curtail stated-granted limited liability WITHOUT further state action.

In any event, as readers may have noticed in my earlier posts on the state grant of limited liability to corporate shareholders, I have reached the conclusion that limited liability is one of the key roots of snowballing corporate statism. Accordingly, I thought I'd pull together here some of my comments on Plauche 's comment thread and some of the comments I was responding to (emphasis added):

Stephan Kinsella

From what Iv’e seen, most libertarians who oppose “limited liability” don’t really understand how it works or really know what they are criticizing. To oppose limited liability means there should be liability in the first place. But should there? For whom? For what? Shareholders should be liable for torts committed by employees of a company the shareholder owns stock in? But why? That is vicarious responsibilty. Why is the shareholder liable for the torts of another person, any more than the tortfeasor’s mom, sister, roommate, co-worker is, or stakeholder, creditor, debtor, supplier, contractor, customer of the corporation is? For more on this see: http://www.stephankinsella.com/?s=hessen+pilon

TokyoTom September 17, 2010 at 10:04 am

Stephan, I think you know that SOME libertarians who oppose “limited liability” understand very well how it works and know what they are criticizing; I have commented extensively on the very un-libertarian state grant of limited liability to shareholders and the pernicious consequences in fuelling the growth of statist, risk-shifting corporations, of pressures by ordinary citizens to rein in corporations, and of the federal regulatory state that the big corporations manipulate and welcome as a massivie barrier to entry:

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/search.aspx?q=limited

It is obvious that state grants of limited liability are not justifiable, are crucial in the overwhelming choice by investors to use the corporate form, have led to lax oversight of corporate management by shareholders and to a massive shifting of risks by corporations to the public as a whole, and to the growth of the massive federal regulatory state to “check” corporate abuses and to oversee “public” corporations.

Not only have corporations been the driving factor in elevating federal power (via expansive interpretations of the Equal Protection and Commerce Clauses) over the states that create corporations, but it is easy to see (and a number of commentators have noted) the negative role that corporation-enabled rent-seeking, lax management and moral hazard have played in the financial crisis and in the Gulf oil spill.

It is perverse that ANY libertarians seek to defend either the state grant of limited liability or the mess that it has clearly triggered and enabled.

A Cliff Notes’ version of my view is here:
http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2010/07/06/the-cliff-notes-version-of-my-stilted-enviro-fascist-view-of-corporations-and-government.aspx

Regards,

TT

Stephan Kinsella September 17, 2010 at 10:21 am

Tom, when you say the state grant of limited liability is not justifiable, this is a disingenuous way of trying to reverse the burden of proof. This very statement is relevant ONLY if the grant changes what would be the case anyway. That is, if shareholders would be vicariously responsible under a libertarian theory of cause for torts of employees of corporations they owned shares in. I’ve yet to see anyone develop a careful, libertarian-compatible theory of causation and responsibility that would (a) implicate shareholders for torts of employees; and (b) not implicate co-employees, vendors, suppliers, customers, lenders, stakeholders, in short everyone.

And people almost always confuse limited liability of shareholders with that of managers. and they don’t understand the role of shareholders, or directors, contrasted with managers. And they mix in unprincipled incentive concerns. It’s just a mess.

If you have a coherent theory of why shareholders should be liable, please point me to it. If not, I don’t know how you are immune from my criticism.

TokyoTom September 18, 2010 at 6:40 am

No, Stephan; what’s perverse is that YOU think it’s incumbent on libertarians to jump through a lot of hoops before they can argue that the state grant of limited liability to shareholders is unlibertarian and ought to be done away with.

The very fact that you protest so loudly is itself evidence that limited liability MATTERS — on top of the piles of evidence that the limited liability grant is crucial to investors in choosing organizational form and has played a key role in the growth of the destructive corporate statism that has shifted risks from managers and owners to the public at large, trampled states rights and led to calls for the regulatory state that corporations both are advantaged over citizens in influencing and which in part keeps corporations subject to political and bureaucracy whim.

A key reason that corporations have become so important, powerful and ubiquitous is that they are risk-shifting machines, reflecting moral hazard both within shareholders and within the managerial class, and because many of them are extremely capable rent-seekers.

Tell me honestly: do you think partnerships, sole proprietorships and the few unlimited liability corporations out there pose anywhere near the risks to society that corporations do? It is corporate status that has enabled the growth of shareholder and managerial anonymity and nearly severed the corporate organizations from communities of people whom they affect. Without corporate status and limited liability, the simple risk of potential liability means that shareholders have much greater incentives to monitor and oversee the risks that corporate business activities pose to others. This risk they could mitigate by using insurers expert in their lines of business.

In the absence of this, we have a managerial class that is largely free from shareholder oversight and that insulates itself from risk via corporate indemnification and D&O insurance, and reams of federal and state laws and regulations that struggle to manage the risks that corporations pose to the public (but serve chiefly as barriers to entry and to further protect management).

The “mess” that you speak of – the confusion over who should be responsible for “corporate torts” – is not only one that you yourself manifest when you say that the Gulf oil spill is “just a tort” (by whom, pray tell?) but is itself a consequence of the grant of limited liability and corporate status, which encourages citizens, judges and juries NOT to look at the real people INSIDE of corporations who should be held responsible for their own behavior. Limited liability has created grand buck-passing machines.

Regards,

Tom

 

panika2008 September 17, 2010 at 12:24 pm

“Limited liability is as bogus as pretending all your debts are really owed by your invisible friend.”

Nah. Limited liability is just a simple juristic construct to make default what would otherwise result in a substantial growth of legal homeorrhage, namely specifying in all and every contract of the company the exact limits and conditions of liability. This is impractical, especially for small firms, so they are given the option to incorporate using the “default” set of rules. It’s a part – quite sensible at that – of our common (sense) law tradition – make good/popular practices into codex's. If only all legislation would proceed basing on this pattern!

 TokyoTom September 18, 2010 at 7:21 am

Panika, the libertarian issue is not about default rules for what could otherwise be voluntarily contracted for – namely, agreements between firms, their shareholders and their voluntary creditors or customers to limit the liability of the firm to its certain assets.

Rather, it is about whether governments should be gifting shareholders with limitations on liability vis-a-vis persons who become INVOLUNTARY creditors of the firm because of corporate actions (via managers, employees or agents) that damage them.

TT

 

panika2008 September 19, 2010 at 10:08 am

How can anyone become an involuntary creditor of anyone otherwise than by criminal action (extortion?) or government subsidy? I don’t quite understand what you mean.

TokyoTom September 20, 2010 at 10:40 am

Panika, “involuntary ” creditors is fancy legalese designed to distinguish (1) those who VOLUNTARILY to do business with a corporation (or other company, person or association) and to which the business owes money, and (2) those who have not contracted with the business, but have a claim because they have been INVOLUNTARILY injured by it.

Because of ability of parties to freely negotiate contracts, the parties in category (1) do not need a state grant of limited liaibility; rather, the chief effect of limited liability is to allow corporations to make profits for shareholders, lenders and managers, while passing risks on to those who made NO choice to be injured.

 

Jon Leckie September 18, 2010 at 5:08 am

Tokyo Tom, good morning. I’m willing to engage in a good dialogue with you on these interesting points.

I followed your links, and thought your two principal concerns were (1) limited liability allows the sponsors of corporate actors to avoid liability for the tortious acts of the company and (2) limited liability is inconsistent with anarchism because it’s only possible through state fiat.

It seems to me that tortious liability can’t exist without a state to impose the tortious duties by fiat, whereas limited liability can be created through contract (perhaps with initially high transaction costs, but standard contratual forms should emerge over time). Do you agree or disagree? What are your thoughts? It seems to me that if you think there’s any truth in this position, you have to engage in a rather deep rethink of the way you express your argument against limited liability.

And of course on top of that remains Stephan Kinsella’s absolutely proper request that you explain why equity investors should have additional duties imposed on them beyond other stakeholders.

Just for background, I have sympathy with your view, even though I no longer agree. When I was at school I applied for a scholarship for an LLM to explore the idea of piercing the corporate veil for companies that engage in human rights violations. The subset is small, mainly companies engaged in extractive industries in the developing world, and I thought that if you allow unlimited liability for such violations, you create incentives for companies engaged in such industries to implement and publish internal procedures designed to avoid such violations; otherwise no one will invest in them. So in preparing for the interview, I presented the idea to some colleagues at the research centre at which I was an assistant, one of them asked why shareholders should bear responsibility for the human rights violations of the company in which they invest. I did’t think I needed to consider that, it was obvious, right? Whatever it takes to prevent such violations should be considered.

I didn’t get the scholarship.

JUL

TokyoTom September 18, 2010 at 8:16 am

Jon, thanks for your comments.

I think the arguments about anarchism vs. minarchism are a distraction in the face of the enormous problem we currently face of corporate risk-shifting, compounded by escalating and counterproductive regulation. Our goal should be to MOVE toward freer societies, not ignore real problems resulting from grants of corporate status/limited liability by assuming a true free market without governments and statist corporations.

But to engage somewhat, let me note that in an anarchic society even the enforcement of contracts may require moral sanction and a possible threat of force. I don’t see that claims by non-contracting parties that they have been injured would not also be subject to very similar “voluntary” court systems, in which injured parties may be supported by community associations, consumer associations, retail stores and the like, which business enterprises (or associations to which they belong) may contract with in advance in order to do business. Other counterparties to a business that engages in risky activities might also insist that the business submit to some type of judicial process regarding any tort claims.

I believe that many traditional societies, precisely to deal with issues of potentially damaging activities, require that people of stature in the community guarantee their behavior.

Let me note that while of course some types of limited liability can be created through contract , NO type of contract lets you say you have no liability to third parties whom you injure but who have not contracted with you in advance.

Stephan hasn’t requested that I explain why equity investors should have additional duties imposed on them beyond other stakeholders; he’s simply noted that, given the status quo, in which shareholders purchase shares based on a legal promise that they will have no liability for corporate acts (other than those they personally direct), it hardly seems fair for the state to impose such liability on them. I would certainly agree; I’m not seeking to use the state to unwind limited liability overnight.

However, that does not at all obviate my concerns about the key role that limited liability plays in our perverse cycles of risk-shifting, increasing regulation and statist rent-seeking and efforts by outraged/concerned/ecofascist citizens groups to apply political pressure and moral suasion.

It seems to me we ought to recognize the negative features of limited liability and to recognize that we can pare back the damage by rolling back the regulatory state in the cases of business entities that do NOT have limited liability for their main investor class: sole proprietorships, partnerships, unlimited liability corporations, corporations whose shares are only 10% paid-in (so a call remains on the remaining 90%). As I have noted in various blog posts, several astute observers have made very similar suggestions regarding banks, securities companies and firms engaging in mineral exploitation on public lands.

Regarding the problem you mention of extractive industries in the developing world, too few people (and far too few libertarians) note that the chief dynamic is one of the theft of indigenous resources by elites via the state, using conveniently amoral Western corporations (that are generally unable and uninterested in getting outright title to the land/resources in question) to complete the robbery and leave the natives with nothing but a mess. IOW, an “Avatar”-like problem, not at all dissimilar to the way our federal government claims ownership to marine resources, grants leases to BP and the like, and leaves fishermen with little to no control over their own livelihoods:

Too Many or Too Few People? Does the market provide an answer? – TT’s Lost in Tokyo http://bit.ly/8zlecI

My “Avatar” posts: TT’s Lost in Tokyo http://bit.ly/9s32uD

TT

TokyoTom September 18, 2010 at 10:45 am

Shay, since liability as to voluntary counterparties CAN be limited by mutual agreement, that is NOT at all what drives the use of the limited liability corporate form, but the ability of owners to shift risks to involuntary third parties. One of the KEY PURPOSES of using the corporate form is the promise to generate great returns to shareholders at the risk of great losses to involuntary third parties, who because of state action lose ANY right to claw back profits for the poor, innocent shareholders.

I suggest you look through my many other posts on limited liability, and that explore this and related topic in the context of the financial crisis and BP:

TT’s Lost in Tokyo http://bit.ly/4nr2Ay

 

 Jon Leckie September 18, 2010 at 11:14 am

TokyoTom: You say “One of the KEY PURPOSES of using the corporate form is the promise to generate great returns to shareholders at the risk of great losses to involuntary third parties, who because of state action lose ANY right to claw back profits for the poor, innocent shareholders.”

That is a bald assertion, Tom. There’s nevier a guarantee of returns to shareholders, let alone great returns. There’s never any guarantee that a company will commit a tort, and there’s never a guarantee that any such tort will result in liability that exceeds the available assets of the company and thus leaves third parties bearing a great loss. These are all events that may happen, but are in no way guaranteed to happen. This is classic baby with the bathwater stuff.

You’ve identified a real problem, but you drastically overstate the extent of it and use it to support abolishing a very useful vehicle for mobilising and deploying capital for socially productive ends. There are other solutions that should be explored before abolishing limited liability should be considered.

TokyoTom September 21, 2010 at 8:13 am

Jon, you accuse me of exaggeration, but understatement is really more like it.

Since limited liability could otherwise be achieved by contract it is clear that the chief effect of that grant is to protect shareholders (and whatever dividends they make) from claims by injured third parties. This is a clear primary intention of many who incorporate and is why lawyers, accounts, doctors and professionals have all pushed to get out of partnerships and into professional corporations.

And sure there’s “never a guarantee of returns to shareholders”, “any guarantee that a company will commit a tort”, nor “a guarantee that any such tort will result in liability that exceeds the available assets of the company and thus leaves third parties bearing a great loss.” But corporations choose to ring-fence all of what they see as risky businesses in separate subsidiaries, precisely to limit the size of the bag if the business fails and/or third parties are injured.

And there have been MANY cases of risks being manifested and damages to innocent parties exceeding corporate assets (and of parent companies working feverishly to make sure those injured get as little as possible). Ever hear of “Superfund sites”, for example?

The history of the limited liability corporate form has been one of a continuing stream of abuses that has led steadily to the aggrandizement of federal power over the states that create corporations, to a continuing cycle regulation in the wake of undermining of strong common-law protection of property (see Block) to protect workers and citizens (regulating health, safety, and welfare, public companies, banks, etc.), and to a steady weakening of shareholder influence over ensconced management.

Far from throwing the baby out with the bathwater, people have to start recognizing that the ‘babies’ have nearly totally slipped our control and, with the government that they have much greater influence over than any of us do, are destroying our communities and freedom.

Anybody who wants to pare back the regulatory state has to strike at the root of regulation and corporate statism – the grant of limited liability that motivates demands from citizens for the mirage of state control.

Contrary to your suggestion, trying to rein in limited liability would NOT mean an end to the corporate form; corporations with uncapped shareholder liability would simply mean shareholders that have far greater incentives to oversee managers and who would be motivated to purchase insurance to cover potential claims against shareholders – which insurers would be well-positioned to help shareholders in oversight. States (and the federal govt) could offer incentives to move in the right direction by reducing regulatory burdens on unlimited liability corps, which would also be in a position to market themselves as more careful and conservative than their competitors. Another way to pare back limited liability would be to provide that companies ensure that common shares are only 10% paid in (so that a call on the remaining 90% remains).

A related step would be to end the counterproductive and risk-shifting federal and state grants of limited liability for particular risky activities, such as nuclear power plants and offshore oil and gas drilling; some commentators, both here at LvMI and elsewhere, have called for a requirement that banks and securities companies be partnerships, precisely because partners have greater incentives to control risk (moral hazard ran rampant in Wall Street as soon as the securities firm went public, and so were playing at making high bonuses while shifting risks to shareholders and US taxpayers, via the “Greenspan-Burbank put”).

I encourage you to investigate further at my blog.

TT

 

TokyoTom September 21, 2010 at 8:40 am

Shay: “What limit is there to who all one can sue for damages? Owners, OK. Shareholders (if that term even applies to non-LLCs)? Employees? Customers?”

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.

TokyoTom September 21, 2010 at 9:04 am

Geoffrey and Stephan, cat got your tongue?

I’m waiting to hear more about the libertarian wonders of state-granted limited liability (and the evil nature of those citizens groups who have started to figure out not only that our good-willed statist corporations are way ahead of them in the struggle to use government, but are catching on to the idea that Mises explored of laws that enable the externalization of costs).

Your friendly neighborhood envirofascist,

TT

 

Jon Leckie September 21, 2010 at 9:10 am

Hello Tokyo, thanks for a powerful reply. You say “accuse”, well that’s a perjorative word, I guess it’s technically correct (that I did so) but please credit me with good intentions. I apologise for my immediately preceding post being worded rather shortly, I’ve trying to strike a better tone here.

You and I are not going to reach agreement in the short run, but it’s been interesting and you’ve given me a lot to think about. I don’t agree with you that all of the evils you identify can be laid at the feet of limited liability. I remain of the view that the abuses of the corporate form must be set against the benefits of allowing investors to mobilise capital in such a way that the downside is limited to the assets originally invested. It may ultimately be demonstrated that the abuses outweigh the upside, but from I have seen you don’t seem to acknowledge any benefits to limited liability. You also don’t seem to consider what the costs of the extra compliance and risk to investors with personal liability: I can tell you from personal experience that compliance and monitoring is not costless and that the burden can sink an otherwise profitable and socially beneficial project. You might say “Well too bad!”, but that’s lost jobs for people, that’s products that won’t be made, that’s wealth foregone.

Ultimately, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. You put so much responsiblity at the feet of limited liability that I don’t think it’s unfair of me to ask for more evidence, better arguments (I may find them on further reading of your blog :-)). I think Stephan Kinsella’s request of you earlier on this page remains valid, to quote:

“Tom, when you say the state grant of limited liability is not justifiable, this is a… way of trying to reverse the burden of proof. This very statement is relevant ONLY if the grant changes what would be the case anyway. That is, if shareholders would be vicariously responsible under a libertarian theory of cause for torts of employees of corporations they owned shares in.”

I believe I understand your response: “no one else gets to avoid tortious liability to third parties based EITHER on the grant of limited liability of the state or by a private contract, so why should people who stand behind an LLC get to do so? The existence of limited liablity (at least vis a vis third parties) is not the default position, they’re a creation of the state.” (Is that right? I’ve tried to be fair, I’m not interested in strawmen). Nonetheless, I don’t think that is a satisfactory libertarian theory of cause for tortious liability for reasons I’ve tried to set out already (contractual liability can exist absent a state (and thus so can limited liability) how would tortious liability exist absent the state?) and so Kinsella’s request remains valid.

If you think that question is covered, my other objection remains: it must ultimately be demonstrated that the abuses outweigh the upside. The law of unintended consequences applies to every proposal for change, and I don’t think you give fair credit to the role that limited liablity entities play in an advanced economy.

I’ll come and see you at your site, or watch out for a reply here. You’ve helped me clarify my own thinking and I appreciate that a lot. Best, JL.

 

TokyoTom September 21, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Jon:

Thanks for your response. While my envirofascist skin remains somewhat thin, I am fine with your tone – even if I see you as exaggerating and not fully comprehending my position.

A few comments in response:

“I remain of the view that the abuses of the corporate form must be set against the benefits of allowing investors to mobilise capital in such a way that the downside is limited to the assets originally invested.”

What, if anything, is libertarian about your proposed cost-benefit calculation? In determining whether state-granted limited liability is justifiable, shall we engage in a utilitarian weighing of the advantages to investors against the disadvantages to others?

“you don’t seem to acknowledge any benefits to limited liability”

But I have; but I have also pointed out that most of the benefits could be achieved by contract. It’s the benefits that can ONLY be achieved by government fiat and at the cost of innocent third parties that I object to.

You seem to think that either the intrusion of government here is minor or the cost to innocent third parties is trivial, but I can assure you that it is not. Indeed, much of what is wrong with the US in particular and with the world more generally can be laid at the foot of wide-scale government-enabled risk-shifting and moral hazard of the type seen in grants of limited liability and the concomitant cycle of regulation (in which the losers are always a number of steps behind) that such grants have set off.

“compliance and monitoring is not costless and that the burden can sink an otherwise profitable and socially beneficial project.”

I’m quite aware that compliance and monitoring are not costless; you, however, see to think that shifting risks to others and thus easing compliance and monitoring costs IS costless and “socially beneficial”, while ignoring that there are clear winners and losers from such government favor. Did you miss the Gulf oil spill, the limits on liability, the poor planning and oversight, the lack of caution, and the costs being borne by quite a different class of people than BP’s shareholders? Of many cases of environment harms experienced throughout the US? Are you unaware of the massive and ongoing environmental damage similarly caused by “socially beneficial” oil and gas development in Nigeria and Ecuador?

You and Kinsella: “Tom, when you say the state grant of limited liability is not justifiable, this is a… way of trying to reverse the burden of proof. This very statement is relevant ONLY if the grant changes what would be the case anyway. That is, if shareholders would be vicariously responsible under a libertarian theory of cause for torts of employees of corporations they owned shares in.”

Au contraire; it’s you and Stephan who are shifting the burden of proof and trying to avoid yourselves to come up with any convincing libertarian arguments FOR the state grant of limited liability to corporate shareholders. Stephan has acknowledged elsewhere that the grant is NON-libertarian, could not be contracted for voluntarily, and that if it were not to exist that insurers would be offering to insure shareholders from downside risks, but like you stubbornly seeks to cling conservatively to a status quo that favors investors and the big government corporatism has produced.

Far from me having to make a libertarian case shareholders should be vicariously responsible under a libertarian theory of cause for torts of employees of corporations, I simply need to show that the grant of limited liability significantly CHANGES the structure of the market and the behavior of market participants. Clearly, limited liability MATTERS, as amply demonstrated not simply by looking at markets and cases where limited liability shields shareholders from damages in cases where partnerships would be liable, but also by your own deep reluctance (and Stephan’s) to do anything about it. Stephan makes a thin lawyerly dodge, while you offer utilitarian arguments.

Stephan’s desire for a libertarian theory of vicarious liability of shareholders in the case of “torts of employees” of corporations is commendable, but as I have already noted, such a desire is itself confused by the failure to recognize the state favors given to corporations and the massive scale at which they operate and can damage third persons. It appears that Kinsella would have us treat most damages caused by companies as “torts by [particular] employees”, thus denying any recourse by injured parties to corporate assets. Such an analysis may be appropriate in the case of small businesses where who acts and under what authority may be very clear (as in the case of partnerships and sole proprietorships), but hardly make any sense in the case of the large, anonymous and bureaucratized institutions that limited liability and legal entity status have directly led to.

Sorry, but it seems to me that your own approach to the issue of tort liability makes even less libertarian sense: you have concluded that in a stateless society institutions would arise only to enforce contracts, while individuals and firms would get away scot-free if they willfully or negligently harmed others. Surely a brief look at traditional societies would quickly inform you that such societies have very sophisticated and effective ways of controlling behavior that damages others.

“my other objection remains: it must ultimately be demonstrated that the abuses outweigh the upside. The law of unintended consequences applies to every proposal for change, and I don’t think you give fair credit to the role that limited liablity entities play in an advanced economy.”

Ahh, there’s your non-libertarian insistence on the need for cost-benefit analysis for a change in eliminating limited liability as to persons involuntarily injured by corporate acts again. Do I need to add up all of the people harmed in the BP spill and weigh them against the potential cost to BP shareholders?

“The law of unintended consequences” sounds suspiciously like the precautionary principle that enviros always argue for (precisely because corporations are risk-shifting machines); bravo! Actually, I’m very well aware, not only of the very central and valuable role that corporate entities play in our economy, but of all of the negative unintended consequences that the grant of limited liability (and other favors) has entailed. But far from throwing the baby out with the bath water, I see reform in this area as both a sine qua non for any meaningful effort to reduce statism and something that is eminently achievable and with a net benefit in efficiency, risk-management and, last but not least, justice.

TT

 

J. Murray September 21, 2010 at 9:17 am

There is no such thing as a libertarian state-granted limited liability.

TokyoTom September 22, 2010 at 12:00 am

Agreed; that's MY point exactly.

Jon Leckie September 22, 2010 at 4:40 am

Well hang on now guys, there's very much a thing as libertarian state-granted limited liability - aren't you conflating liberatarianism with anarchism? The two are not the same and I can find no definition of libertarianisn that requires the abolishment of the state.

There very much is such a concept of state-granted limited liability, it's just that Tokyo sees proponents as being obligated to justify its continuance PRECISELY because it is a gift from the state, whereas - on this point - I view it as also capable of existing absent the state through private contract. Tokyo then asks how private contract can exclude third party tortious liability, and I respond with how can tortious liability even EXIST in a stateless environment? (Which might be a stupid question, but no one's yet said anything on it, it must be a question addressed in the literature somewhere).

Tokyo, one discrete question on your response above: you say it's non-libertarian to weigh costs and benefits, summing this up as a crude utilitarianism. Why is that not an approach I can take? I mean, on the BP example, one might read your post and wonder whether BP merrily skipped town, having destroyed the gulf completely, taken no remedial action and paid no billions of dollars into a compensation fund, plus remaining exposed to private civil claims? Ask British pensioners whose payments are reliant on BP's dividends whether they've suffered or not. Yes those living around the Gulf have had a hell of a time, but that's not enough of an argument: accidents happen. BP is being punished. So it's not a crude balancing act between (a) environment destroyed, people suffering and (b) callous shareholders laughing to the bank. I'm saying that limited liability may be responsible for a vast amount of economic activity that otherwise may not take place due to the unlimited risk of personal liability. Surely you need to take this into account, no?

Oh, and I need to ask you to do me a favour: please don't accuse me of supporting big government corporatism. I may not be an anarchist, but I am as resolutely against corporate welfare and crony capitalism as anyone else who enjoys these pages. Supporting limited liability as a vehicle for mobilising investment is NOT the same thing as supporting GE or GM, please acknowledge this.

J. Murray September 22, 2010 at 5:30 am

I'm not really confusing libertarianism with anarchism here. A state-granted limited liability would be violating the life, liberty, and property angle. I don't see libertarianism compatible with a state granting immunity to a party for any wrongdoing. The general argument between minarchism and anarchism in libertarian circles is whether the state should exist to punish those who violate those three key tennents, not whether the state exists to protect the wrongdoer against just punishment.

Jon Leckie September 22, 2010 at 6:24 am

Thanks, J. Murrary: that's helpful. It's probably apparent enough, but I've a lot more reading to do and am picking up a lot as I go along.

Does it affect your view at all to stress that limited liability does not preclude recovery? There's no immunity: but recovery is limited to the assets held in the vehicle and if damages are in excess of the value of those assets, the entity is dead. There seems to be remedies available beyond banning limited liability to prevent/minimise undercapitalised entities engaging in behaviour likely to give rise to torious liability (contrast BP with Mom&Pop LLC running a local hardware store): I'm really struggling to get across the line on limited liability as ipso facto in breach of the life, liberty and property standard (thanks again for clarifying the perspective there though). Maybe one day I'll end up in his camp, I'm keeping an open mind (as much as one can try!). Lots to think about.

PS. Without a state to impose liability for and punish tortious acts against the property rights of another, how would liability for the tortious act be enforced against the tortfeasor?

TokyoTom September 23, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Jon, as for "how can tortious liability even EXIST in a stateless environment?", I clearly addressed this above where I said:

Sorry, but it seems to me that your own approach to the issue of tort liability makes even less libertarian sense: you have concluded that in a stateless society institutions would arise only to enforce contracts, while individuals and firms would get away scot-free if they willfully or negligently harmed others. Surely a brief look at traditional societies would quickly inform you that such societies have very sophisticated and effective ways of controlling behavior that damages others.

Maybe this post with Bruce Yandle's thoughts on how humans manage commons might be a good start: http://bit.ly/8V2q6R

Utilitarianism presumes both that it is possible to measure and aggregate conflicting preferences and that it is acceptable for government to do so and to intentionally benefit particular groups of individuals at the expense of others. Austrians say that the first is impossible and libertarians say that the the second violates basic principles.

As for BP and other corporations, I have little sympathy for shareholders, who have the benefit of their bargain (including dividends in good times that cannot be clawed back when risks materialize and the company is unable to fulfill its obligation), while persons injured by corporate actions have little or no ability to bargaining in advance whatsoever, or to get ready to get harmed. (The case of BP is compounded by the fact that government, by claiming to own "public" resources, deprives the fishermen harmed of any control over their livelihoods including any property right that they can claimed was harmed.) This just scratches the surface; I have commented extensively on BP on my blog and on other pages here: http://bit.ly/crTbEA

Yes, I see that you are "saying that limited liability may be responsible for a vast amount of economic activity that otherwise may not take place due to the unlimited risk of personal liability." I see we agree that limited liability is very important - great! - but you seem to think either that, somewhat magically, such limitations on liability make risks simply disappear, or that such a shifting of risks by investors in particular firms (and the investor class generally) to innocent third parties class leads to improved risk management, or that such shifting or risks by those who fund and benefit from them to innocent third parties is justified on utilitarian or some other unspecified principled grounds. Surely you can see that "the unlimited risk of personal liability" is the default situation without state intervention?

By the way, I completely accept your good faith; please accept my pokes simply as attempt to get you to reflect on the implications of your positions.

You might think that you don't "support[] big government corporatism", but surely you ought to realizing that limited liability is a key factor in the rise of statist corporations. Supporting limited liability as towards innocent third parties might be effective in creating a vehicle for mobilizing investment, but it is also clear a vehicle of massive risk-shifting, theft and at destroying community in favor of fundamentally amoral governments and corporations.

You suggest you don't support GE or GM, but if you can accept and support limited liability, then surely also you must accept its consequences.

TT

TokyoTom September 23, 2010 at 12:48 pm

"Accidents happen"? So do systematic trainwrecks due to mismanagement of risks.

Could government interventions that enable risk-shifting in banks, securities firms and corporations (and subsequent bailouts) have anything to do with engendering such mismanagement?

Massive kleptocracy in the third world differs little from what we see at home.

 

Beefcake the Mighty September 22, 2010 at 9:51 pm

"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?"

What does this question have to do with limited liability? Why should shareholders be any more responsible for the disaster than people who filled their tanks with BP's gas? They both gave the the company money, after all.

I'm having a hard time seeing what point, exactly, you're trying to make here (beyond anti-corporatist bromides).

TokyoTom September 23, 2010 at 11:20 am

Lord Bungulous Bringer of Beefcake:

What, those who simply buy a company's products should be treated on the same basis as those who invest in the company's business model? Are you trying to clarify, or obfuscate? One offers money in exchange for goods or services, the other offers money for the profits he expects to gain from the company's business model.

I'm having a hard time seeing what point, exactly, you're trying to make here (beyond pro-statist-corporatist bromides).

What does the question of whether corporations should have any vicarious liability for the actions of its employees and agents have to do with limited liability? Thanks for the opportunity for me to be a bringer of light, but it's not that complicated: without limited liability and corporate "legal entity" status, investors and corporate managers would care to make sure that employees are careful. The limited liability shield makes it the interest of shareholders NOT TO CARE, and the interest of managers to obscure who is responsible. Because incorporations make possible large, impersonal businesses without a clear locus of responsibility, on the behest of victims seeking recompense for damages suffered, courts tend to hold "the company" responsible.

In short, the confusion that Stephan raises and professes to be concerned about is a product of the very state grant of limited liability that he - like you - thinks is too unimportant to question, but important enough to defend.

Why don't you and Stephan start a libertarian fan club for essential government interventions? You can start with limited liability for corporate shareholders generally, add the specific caps on liability granted to the oil+gas industry and nuclear industry, and include the preemption of strict common law protection of property from pollution, in favor of federal preemption and rights to pollute.

Or you could think a little more seriously about how we could replace corporate risk-shifting machines and the whole mass of federal and state regulation that are purported intended to curtail such risks (but instead create barriers to entry and ensconce management from shareholders, thus introducing another layer of moral hazard) with internal risk control and risk control via insurers acting for shareholders.

A number of conservative commentators have made the radical suggestion that banks, securities firms and offshore oil+gas cos should be allowed to act only through partnerships (or other unlimited liability entities); they are thinking too modestly and have overlooked the limited liability for corporate shareholders that drives our whole regulatory edifice and has set off our escalating cycle of statist rent-seeking and corruption.

TT

Beefcake the Mighty September 23, 2010 at 11:26 am

"One offers money in exchange for goods or services, the other offers money for the profits he expects to gain from the company's business model."

Yeah, what a critical distinction. Shocking I didn't see it previously; thanks so much!

TokyoTom September 23, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Not sure whether I should be pleased that my comments are so pedestrian, or disturbed that you are content with government interventions that help to erase moral distinctions.

Prior to the creation of corporations, it was clear who was doing what ... thank goodness for anonymity and lack of personal responsibility!

TokyoTom September 23, 2010 at 9:39 pm

[I am]  thankful that you provide an opportunity for me to help others examine the growing rot set off by the very non-libertarian grant of limited liability to shareholders regarding injury to involuntary third parties:

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2009/02/26/the-curse-of-limited-liability-wsj-com-executives-traders-of-big-financial-corporations-generate-risky-businesss-while-smaller-partnerships-are-much-more-risk-averse.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2010/06/29/limited-liability-financial-crisis-and-bp-someone-else-sees-the-obvious-quot-black-swan-quot-of-executive-trader-moral-hazard-after-investment-banks-went-corporate.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2010/04/22/finally-an-lvmi-commentator-points-out-the-elephant-in-the-room-effective-reform-to-rein-in-rampant-moral-hazard-at-banks-means-removing-limited-liability.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2010/08/18/in-a-shocking-moment-of-honesty-conocophillips-ceo-says-offshore-oil-isn-t-economical-without-government-gifts-of-limited-liability.aspx

Thanks so much for coming out to play, Lord Beefcake!

TT

 

The Kid Salami September 24, 2010 at 5:40 am

“One offers money in exchange for goods or services, the other offers money for the profits he expects to gain from the company’s business model.”

What about someone who hands his money to some third party to manage and this third party puts his money into BP? Is he more or less liable than someone who does it directly?

Your distinction is not helpful. “offers money for the profits he expects to gain from the company’s business model” – this is just having dividends stuck into your bank account. How is this different in your view from the “services” you mention in the first part?

TokyoTom September 24, 2010 at 11:43 am

TKS, thanks for your questions.

I am quite aware of the point that, as a consequence of the existing grant of limited liability, shareholders have little actual control over public companies in which they have shares of stock and thus – along with zero legal liability for corporate torts – very little moral responsibility for corporate behavior. But such observations of the status quo cannot serve to justify the state intervention that has so neatly divorced the supposed “owners” of a business from any such liability.

While the differences between shareholders and customers now may appear to be slight, this is a situation (where there re no human actually owning the business and any downside risks) created artificially by government; I can assure you that the differences between owners and customers is much more stark in partnerships and other forms of business enterprise where the owners are not given a liability shield by government and thus bear personal risk if things go wrong. While this largely as we think it should be, I have never heard a libertarian or legal argument that those who purchase products from an enterprise should have any legal liability for harms that the business causes to others (though it is not uncommon to see moral suasion pressure being put on customers as well as creditors and shareholders when an enterprise engages in harmful or objectionable activities).

..[You might have noted that I have remarked several times that I am NOT arguing FOR a general rule that shareholders SHOULD be liable for corporate torts; rather, I have:

(1) pointed out that limited liability itself has served to muddle the question of whom, exactly, should be responsible for the very real harms that corporatons frequently cause,

(2) noted that the limited-liability corporate form has enabled risk-generation and -shifting on a massive scale, with innocent third parties frequently being stuck holding the bag (not solely when liabilities exceed assets, but more generally since the cycle of escalating government interventions to rein in corporations perversely ends up raising barriers to entry and giving corporations “rights to pollute” that curtail recourse even when sufficient assets are available),

(3) argued that libertarians should reconsider the grant of limited liability for torts (as opposed to limited liability as to those who contract with the corporation on a voluntary basis) not simply because it is clearly non-libertarian to begin with, but because it has had profound consequences – consequences at a serious enough level that state-loving libertarians concede simply by troubling themselves to argue against curtailing limited liability,

(4) noted that the most efficiacious way to roll back the regulatory state lie in the direction of shifting ultimate responsibility fpr managing risks to enterprise owners (and ending the counterproductive regualtory risk-management experient), and

(5) noted that a curtailment of limited liability for torts could be hedged by shareholders via insurance, and could be achieved by state governments and the federal government offering more lenient regulation to busness enterprises that operate as partnerships, unlimited liability corporations, or in cases where shares are not fully paid up so that calls for signifcant additional capital could be made against shareholders if needed to pay claims.

IOW, the insistence by Kinsella . . . that one must “provide a theory of liability that coherently distinguishes shareholders from any other patron of the company” BEFORE one can examine the justifications FOR and the consequences of the state grant of limited liability is both sadly non-libertarian and dangerously blind and shallow.

 

Published Wed, Sep 22 2010 1:20 AM by TokyoTom

Comments

# Limited liability, Part 2: Is limited liability for torts is simple codification of what companies and their counterparties could agree to voluntarily?

Saturday, September 25, 2010 1:40 PM by TT's Lost in Tokyo

The comments regarding on limited liability at Geoffrey Allan Plauche 's post, " Ecofascism

# Limited Liability, Part 3: limited liability for torts is a non-libertarian gift from the state that has done tremendous damage - both literally and in driving the growth of a massive regulatory state

Saturday, September 25, 2010 2:32 PM by TT's Lost in Tokyo

More follow-up regarding on limited liability excerpted from Geoffrey Allan Plauche 's post, "

# Limited Liability, Part 4: Libertarians sidestep the gift of limited liability & the resulting wreckage by arguing it's now unfair to make irresponsible shareholders liable

Saturday, September 25, 2010 2:57 PM by TT's Lost in Tokyo

More follow-up comments regarding on limited liability, excerpted from the comment thread to Geoffrey

# Limited liability, Part 2: Is limited liability for torts a simple codification of what companies and their counterparties could agree to voluntarily?

Saturday, September 25, 2010 3:00 PM by TT's Lost in Tokyo

The comments regarding on limited liability at Geoffrey Allan Plauche 's post, " Ecofascism

# re: OMG - those ecofascists hate statist corps, too, and even want to - GASP - end that oh-so-libertarian state grant of limited liability!

Monday, September 27, 2010 6:55 PM by nskinsella

"One offers money in exchange for goods or services, the other offers money for the profits he expects to gain from the company's business model."

Actually, shareholders need not have ever given money to the company--they often acquire the shares from a previous shareholder. Now whatchoogonna say?

# re: OMG - those ecofascists hate statist corps, too, and even want to - GASP - end that oh-so-libertarian state grant of limited liability!

Monday, September 27, 2010 9:53 PM by nskinsella

"One offers money in exchange for goods or services, the other offers money for the profits he expects to gain from the company's business model."

In fact, while a customer does give money to the company--thus aiding and abetting it, in some sense--a shareholder does NOT. The reason is you can become a shareholder by buying a share from a previous shareholder, without ever giving a dime to the company.

# Limited Liability, Part 4: Libertarians sidestep the gift of limited liability & the resulting wreckage by arguing it's now unfair to make irresponsible shareholders liable

Sunday, December 5, 2010 11:25 AM by TT's Lost in Tokyo

More follow-up comments regarding on limited liability, excerpted from the comment thread to Geoffrey