Showing posts with label rent seeking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rent seeking. Show all posts

Monday, May 24, 2021

The Debits, The Credits, The . . . People We Exploit


Imagine being a fly on the wall overhearing various nefarious conversations at a major corporation's board of directors meeting. 

Imagine them trying to save money by paying women less, trying to please customers by not hiring racial minorities, contemplating intellectual-property theft, discussing a newfound way they can literally defraud customers, etc. 

These would all obviously be wrong (morally and ethically not to mention in many cases criminally), and these ideas would not be within the scope of fiduciary duty. The board of directors of a public company does owe a fiduciary duty to shareholders. That duty requires it to put the interest of shareholders first including doing their best to maximize shareholder value. Yet that duty does not extend to wrongdoing on behalf of shareholders or the firm nor does it excuse them morally or ethically from guilt. 

I think these examples above are the easy cases. At least they should be easy for you. Let's consider something a bit more challenging.

Should we put cronyism in the same unethical category? Is pursuing special favor from the government at the expense of the public unethical? Are benefits to a firm and its shareholders legitimate when they are derived through socially destructive means? Undoubtedly there are meaningful differences in degree and type. 

At what point does activity like developing and utilizing business relationships, networking, and advocacy cross over to be unethical--cronyism if you will? I believe one clear marker would be when that behavior would be reasonably expected to violate the rights of a third-party either actually or potentially with good likelihood. That is a clumsy test, I know. While it leaves lot left for interpretation, I do think it gets to the essence of the problematic case.

In one realm we have competitive behavior in the pursuit of success. In the other we have coercive behavior in the pursuit of unearned gain.

It is difficult to disentangle behavior and results between these two worlds. In fact people participating in an activity during or after the fact would find it quite challenging even if they could put their natural bias to the side--the bias to believe they were acting in good faith and to good ends using good information and sound logic. It is hard to see when the world generally and the business world in particular is as political as ours has become.

As a result cronyism is perhaps a natural cancer within capitalism that requires active resistance. It extends beyond simply lobbying for advantageous contracts. It includes businesses supporting expensive regulations such as safety standards and minimum wages. When the railroad industry supports limits on truck size and trucker hours or when Facebook asks for the government for Internet regulation or when Amazon lobbies for a $15 minimum wage, they are all doing so for competitive advantage. If those policies would also result in a social benefit, it would be rather coincidental and not at all self-evident. 

Cronyism is endemic and pervasive. The cure is neither obvious nor likely easy. Just identifying the responsible parties is quite hard. As Michael Huemer says, blame everybody and nobody.



P.P.S. This post's title is taken from a line in this Jake Johannsen comedy special from the 1990s.