Predistribution and profits: extract from Economics in Two Lessons
Over the fold, another extract from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. Encouraging comments appreciated, constructive criticism even more so.
Predistribution and profits
As we’ve seen in previous sections, the social constructions of property rights and institutions surrounding employment makes a big difference to the determination of wages and working conditions. These social constructions affect ‘predistribution’, the distribution of income and wealth that arises before the effects of taxes and public expenditure are taken into account.
Predistribution is equally relevant to the other big source of personal income: profit derived from private businesses and corporations. Without legal structures designed specifically to protect businesses from the risks of failure, profits would be far less secure, and the difficulty of establishing and running a business much greater. Corporate profits are not a natural outcome of a market society, but the product of specific structures of property rights introduced to promote corporate enterprise.
The risks of running a business in the 18th century, and well into the 19th, were substantial and personal. There was no such thing as bankruptcy: a business failure meant debtors prison, where debtors could be held until they had worked off their debt via labor or secured outside funds to pay the balance.
After a brief and disastrous experiment in the early years of the 18th century (the South Sea Bubble), joint stock companies were also viewed with grave suspicion.
The prevailing view was Quoted in John Poynder, Literary Extracts (1844), vol. 1, p. 268. 
Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned; they therefore do as they like.
This is often misquoted as
“Did you ever expect a corporation to have a conscience, when it has no soul to be damned, and no body to be kicked?
Adam Smith was similarly scathing, though with more of a focus on the principal-agent problem
The directors of such [joint-stock] companies, however, being the managers rather of other people’s money than of their own, it cannot well be expected, that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which the partners in a private copartnery frequently watch over their own…. Negligence and profusion, therefore, must always prevail, more or less, in the management of the affairs of such a company.
Exceptions were made only for specially authorised quasi-governmental ventures like the East India Company, focused on foreign trade. In general, limited liability companies were not permitted in Britain or most other countries. The partners in a business were jointly liable for all its debts.
These same rules applied in Britain’s American colonies and continued to prevail in the United States until the middle of the 19th century. The introduction of personal bankruptcy laws put an end to debtors prison, greatly reducing the risks of running a business. The creation of the limited liability company was an even more radical change.
These changes faced vigorous resistance from advocates of the free market. David Moss, in When All Else Fails, his brilliant history of government as the ultimate risk manager, describes how the advocates of unlimited personal responsibility for debt were overwhelmed by the needs of business in an industrial economy. The introduction of bankruptcy and limited liability laws took much of the risk out of starting and operating a business.
By contrast, in Economics in One Lesson, Hazlitt doesn’t mention limited liability or personal bankruptcy and seems to assume (like most defenders of the market) that these are a natural feature of market societies. More theoretically inclined propertarians have continued to debate the legitimacy of bankruptcy and limited liability laws, without reaching a conclusion.
This debate over whether bankruptcy and corporation laws are consistent with freedom of contract is really beside the point. The distribution of income and wealth is radically changed both by the existence of these institutions and by the details of their design. In particular, the massive accumulations of personal wealth made possible by capital gains from share ownership would simply not exist. Perhaps there would be comparable accumulations of wealth derived in some other way, but the owners of that wealth would be different people.
A crucial policy question, therefore, is whether current laws and policies relating to corporate bankruptcy and limited liability have promoted the growth of inequality and contributed to the weak and crisis-ridden economy that has characterised the
20th 21st century. The combination of these factors has produced absolute stagnation or decline in living standards for much of the US population and relative decline for all but the top few per cent.
There can be little doubt that this is the case. As recently as the 1970s, a corporate bankruptcy was the last resort for insolvent companies, typically leading to the liquidation of the company in question. As well as being a financial disaster, and a source of shame for all those involved. For this reason, nearly all major companies sought to maintain an investment-grade credit rating, indicating a judgement by ratings agencies that bankruptcy was, at most, a fairly remote possibility.
Since that time, bankruptcy has become a routine financial operation, used to avoid inconvenient liabilities like pension obligations to workers and the costs of cleaning up mine sites, among many others. The crucial innovation was “Chapter 11”, introduced in the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978.
The intended effect of Chapter 11 was that companies could reorganise themselves while going through bankruptcy, and re-emerge as going concerns. The (presumably) unintended effect was that corporate managers ceased to be scared of bankruptcy. This was reflected in the spectacular growth of the market for ‘junk bonds’, that is, securities with a high rate of interest reflecting a substantial probability of default. Once the preserve of fly-by-night operations, junk bonds (more politely called ‘high-yield’) became a standard source of finance even for companies in the S&P 500.
At the same time, legislative changes and the growth of global capital markets greatly enhanced the benefits of corporate structures, while eliminating many of the associated costs and limitations. At the bottom end of the scale, the ‘close corporation’ with only a handful of shareholders, became the standard method of organising a small business. This process was aided by a long-series of pro-corporate legislative changes and court decisions (notably in Delaware, which has long led the way in this process, and where vast numbers of US companies are incorporated). At the top end, the rise of global financial markets from the 1970s onwards allowed the creation of corporate structures of vast complexity, headquartered in tax havens and organised to resist scrutiny of any kind.
At the behest of these corporations, governments have negotiated agreements supposedly designed to ensure that corporate profits are not taxed twice in different jurisdictions. In reality, using a combination of complex corporate structures and governments (notably including those of Ireland and Luxembourg) eager to facilitate tax avoidance in return for a small slice of the proceeds, the effect has been to ensure that most global corporate profits are not taxed even once in the countries where they are earned.
What can be done to redress the balance that has been tipped so blatantly in favor of corporations. The obvious starting point is transparency. Havens of corporate secrecy, from Caribbean islands to US states like Delaware must be made to reveal he true ownership of corporations, in the same way that tax havens like Switzerland, used mostly by wealthy individuals, have been forced to disclose the ownership of previously secret accounts.
The use of complex corporate structures to avoid tax is a much more difficult problem to tackle. Some measures are being taken to attack what is called “Base Erosion and Profit Shifting’, but past experience suggests that slow-moving processes of this kind will at best keep pace with the development of new forms of avoidance and evasion. It’s necessary to re-examine the whole structure of global taxation agreements. Instead of focusing on the need to avoid taxing corporate profits twice, the central objective should be to ensure that they are taxed at least once, in the place where they are actually generated.
More generally, though, the idea that corporations are a natural part of the economic order, with all the human rights of individuals, and none of the obligations needs to be challenged. Limited liability corporations are creations of public policy, useful to the extent that they promote the efficient use of capital but dangerous to the extent that they facilitate gross inequalities of income and opportunity.