I have noticed from some libertarians, such as “left libertarians” such as Roderick Long, a hostility to the idea of limited liability corporations. I understand and even sympathise with such opposition to statutory limited liability. It can and does foster corporate structures that become so unwieldy that they are indistinguishable from the State in key respects. But the key word to remember here is statutory. Consensual Limited Liability of a sort that can be arranged without an explicit statutory power is, in my view, no different from say, other consensual commercial transactions that are recognised in law, such as via Common Law. Of course, limited liability firms may be far less common under such a system but it is unwise to bet on it disappearing. And given all the benefits of limited liability: the ability to get large pools of investors to finance large ventures, it seems an issue worth examining in detail.
The reason some free marketeers, particularly of the more radical sort, get angry about limited liability is that they see ownership and control torn asunder, creating a serious misalignment of interests. Case in point being an argument made by Kevin Dowd and Martin Hutchinson, in their book that analyses the recent credit crunch, Alchemists of Loss. They take the view that listed banks, protected by limited liability, have, unlike old partnership-owned banks with unlimited liability, made dangerous bets. A problem that is, of course, made much worse by corporate welfare via bailouts, central bank funny money, the usual. In the same way, you could argue that limited liability companies in general exhibit negative behaviours when politics intrudes.
But one of the High Priests of libertarian capitalism, Murray Rothbard no less, made it clear that there is nothing in principle wrong with the idea of limited liability. His argument strikes me as pretty solid:
“Finally, the question may be raised: Are corporations themselves mere grants of monopoly privilege? Some advocates of the free market were persuaded to accept this view by Walter Lippmann’s The Good Society. It should be clear from previous discussion, however, that corporations are not at all monopolistic privileges; they are free associations of individuals pooling their capital. On the purely free market, such men would simply announce to their creditors that their liability is limited to the capital specifically invested in the corporation, and that beyond this their personal funds are not liable for debts, as they would be under a partnership arrangement. It then rests with the sellers and lenders to this corporation to decide whether or not they will transact business with it. If they do, then they proceed at their own risk. Thus, the government does not grant corporations a privilege of limited liability; anything announced and freely contracted for in advance is a right of a free individual, not a special privilege. It is not necessary that governments grant charters to corporations.”