We always thought that Larry Elliott was a little oasis of comparative sanity over at that small part of The Guardian that has actually heard of the basic concepts of economics. So it’s something of a pity to see him coming off the rails over the desirability of limited liability:
Finally, there’s the nuclear option: stripping companies of the protection provided by limited liability. The owners, the shareholders and those running companies wield enormous power but don’t bear full responsibility for their actions because their liability is limited to the size of their investment in a company or partnership. But limited liability is a privilege not a right, and in return for granting it society should get something back in return. The argument the Thatcher government used when it said employers could sue unions for damages caused by strikes was that there was no such thing as a something-for-nothing world, and the same argument applies to companies.
The deal should be that companies get the protection limited liability provides in return for looking after all their stakeholders: the workers they employ, the customers they serve, the companies that form their supply chains, the taxpayers who pay for the transport infrastructure and the education system that businesses require. The deal should not be limited liability in return for boardroom greed, running rings round the taxman and breaking the law.
As Prem Sikka said in this series, any change to limited liability would be fiercely resisted. But even the suggestion of change would concentrate minds. Imagine, for example, that a future government set up a royal commission to look into the issue. Would this lead to companies treating their staff better and paying more tax? You bet it would.
Limite3d liability has been called the third great invention, after agriculture and the scientific method. That might be rather overegging the argument but we do face Chesterston’s Fence here. We shouldn’t be thinking about removing something until we’ve worked out why it was introduced in the first place. And the reason we have limited liability isn’t particularly because it’s a necessary feature of capitalism, neoliberalism, corporatism or any other -ism that might currently be unfashionable. It’s because it’s a necessary precondition of having any large scale economic activity.
Some economic projects require the mobilisation of the assets of tens of thousands to tens of millions of people. Or some reasonable fraction of those individual assets. And it doesn’t matter, for our argument here, whether that’s done through the State, a workers’ coop, a capitalist style corporation or any other method. If all those thousands to millions are to be held jointly and severally liable for all of the risks of however many projects their assets support then that mobilisation simply will not happen. Limited liability is simply a precondition of being able to have large scale projects undertaken.
So Prem Sikka is howling at the Moon here but then we knew about the Professor’s tendency to do that already. what’s disappointing is Elliott’s support for the argument. For Elliott is missing something we’ve mentioned around here a number of times. The value to us of an organisation that produces things is not in the tax they pay, the wages they cough up, the manner in which they treat their suppliers. The value to us of a producing organisation is in what they produce. And, as above, limited liability allows large scale producing organisations to exist. And that’s the benefit that we the wider society get from it.
Nothing else is necessary.