On the limited liability corporation

Stephen Bainbridge, who teaches law at UCLA and blogs at ProfessorBainbridge.com, has a great essay lauding the limited liability corporation, among other topics. It’s clumsy to download, so I’m reprinting the material on corporations after the jump.

Legal education pervasively sends law students the message that corporate lawyering is a less moral and socially desirable career path than so-called “public interest” lawyering. The corporate world is viewed as essentially corrupting and alienating, while true self-actualization is possible only in a Legal Aid office.

Our students get these messages not only in law school, of course, but also in the media. Films like “A Civil Action” or “Erin Brockovich” illustrate the general ill repute in which corporations–and corporate lawyers–are held, at least here in Hollywood.

In my teaching, I have chosen to unabashedly embrace a competing view. I tell my students about Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who wrote that: “The limited liability corporation is the greatest single discovery of modern times. Even steam and electricity are less important than the limited liability company.”

I tell them about journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, whose magnificent history, The Company, contends that the corporation is “the basis of the prosperity of the West and the best hope for the future of the rest of the world.”

There is no doubt that the corporation is now the key economic institution in Western nations. In the United States, for example, the corporation is the predominant form of business organization by every measure except sheer number of firms. According to recent census data, although corporations account for only about one fifth of all business organizations, they bring in almost 90% of all business receipts.

The corporation also has proven to be a powerful engine for focusing the efforts of individuals to maintain economic liberty. Because tyranny is far more likely to come from the public sector than the private, those who for selfish reasons strive to maintain both a democratic capitalist society and, of particular relevance to the present argument, a substantial sphere of economic liberty therein serve the public interest. Put another way, private property and freedom of contract were “indispensable if private business corporations were to come into existence.” In turn, by providing centers of power separate from government, corporations give “liberty economic substance over and against the state.”

Yet, two centuries ago, leading business and economic thinkers — including the great Adam Smith — derided the joint stock company. Few businesses were organized as chartered companies. Each company’s charter required a special legislative act. In many places, legislatures granted charters only to quasi-public entities, such as railroads and canals. In most, legislatures rarely resisted the temptation to revise or even repeal existing charters arbitrarily. Even in the United States, where the Supreme Court’s famous Dartmouth College decision gave corporations substantial constitutional protections at a relatively early date, such legislative meddling remained commonplace.

And so I ask my students: What explains the relatively rapid development in the mid-19th century of a recognizably modern corporation and, in turn, that entity’s emergence as the dominant form of economic organization?

The answer has to do with new technologies — especially the railroad — requiring vast amounts of capital, the advantages such large firms derived from economies of scale, the emergence of limited liability that made it practicable to raise large sums from numerous passive investors, and the rise of professional management.

For the most part, these advantages remain true today. The corporation remains the engine of economic growth, both at the level of giants like Microsoft and garage-based start-ups.

The rise of the corporate form thus has “improved the living standards of millions of ordinary people, putting the luxuries of the rich within the reach of the man in the street.” The rising prosperity made possible by the tremendous new wealth created by industrial corporations was a major factor in destroying arbitrary class distinctions, enhancing personal and social mobility. Many of the wealthiest businessman of the latter half of the 19th Century and the 20th Century began their careers as laborers rather than as scions of coupon-clipping plutocrats.

And so I put it to my students this way: You want to help make society a better place? You want to eliminate poverty? Become a corporate lawyer. Help businesses grow, so that they can create jobs and provide goods and services that make people’s lives better.

The goal isn’t just to make my students feel better about themselves. I firmly believe that too many of our students, when they get out in practice, may be more willing to act in ways that are ethically gray–to act as facilitators rather than gatekeepers–if they’ve been told repeatedly that they’ve already “sold out.” If more legal academics were to celebrate the pro-social aspects of corporate practice, perhaps our students would be better gatekeepers once they get out in practice.

The Nicholas Murray Butler quote to which he refers is here.

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