Great minds think alike: I had been meaning to fisk Jesse Norman’s recent defence of the idea that companies have wide social and other “duties” – not just to that nasty stuff about doing what the owners want – but Tim Worstall, at his Adam Smith Institute perch, beat me to the punch. (As readers might have noticed, my Samizdata productivity has been hit by my being very busy at work, and, er, lots of trips abroad lately.) Here’s Tim:
Well yes Jesse: but you’re a Tory MP, not a Labour one. You’re not there to defend the idiocies of the past Labour Government you’re there to try to correct them. This part of the Companies Act was deliberately brought in to try and appease the more drippingly social democratic parts of the Labour Party. Rather than now stating that this is the aim and purpose of a company you’re supposed to be shouting from the rooftops that they got this wrong. The point and aim of a company is the enrichment of its shareholders, nothing else. You should be agitating to get the law changed to reflect reality, not accepting the fantasies of your predecessors: otherwise what’s a Tory for if not to be a reactionary? Alternatively, if we’re to have Tory MPs being so drippingly wet what’s the reason for the existence of the Labour Party any more? Who would need them?
Here is Norman’s original article – in the Daily Telegraph – so readers can judge for themselves whether Tim Worstall has him accurately pegged. He has, in my view.
Companies have no broad “duties” if you believe in private sector, and in a civil society based on voluntary relationships. That means if I set up a firm, with capital of mine or entrusted to me by others with their consent, then apart from not breaking rules about force, fraud, etc, there is nothing else one is required to do. Professor Milton Friedman has this all understood years ago. The proper response to calls for “corporate social responsibility” is “fuck off”.
When Norman talks of a “corporate duty” in some broader sense, he makes no attempt, from what I can see, to validate that by reference any fundamental principles. He is, I see, the author of a new book about Edmund Burke, and he uses Burke quite clearly to push against all this terrible “individualism” (ie, belief in personal freedom) and suchlike that he sees as causing all our problems. Never mind that libertarians/classical liberals have plenty to say about the benefits of a community based on voluntary interaction, not coercion. (How many more times does this have to be explained to the dullards who keep banging on about how we are “atomists”?). It is also well worth remembering that Burke was not a “Conservative” in the sense people today understand it; he was “Old Whig” and friend of the likes of Adam Smith and David Hume, and had little time for economic intervention.
To get back on the nub of the tax/company issue, as Tim Worstall says, if big firms are able to use their accountants and advisors to get around onerous local tax laws, then perhaps Norman and his fellow MPs should consider whether to make local tax laws as simple, and as low, as possible. Another point he ought to consider is something that Worstall again writes about on a regular basis: tax incidence. Companies are not people: if you tax a firm’s profits, then those taxes are paid by people in some way. The taxes are passed on in the form of lower dividends, lower capital gains, crappier products, lower wages paid to staff, shoddier products and services, etc. Norman should consider the sensible ideas of the 2020 Tax Commission.
Norman is a member of a political party that, however dimly, ought to be aware of such basic facts. Yes, I know that many of the Cameroons are utterly useless, but there surely are enough bright Tory MPs who can take Norman aside and explain the basic facts of economics to him. I can think of several MPs well suited to the role. Does Norman have Steve Baker’s contact details?
Addendum: I suppose some on the libertarian camp might argue that calls for corporate duties are what you get when firms receive subsidies, privileges from the state of various kinds, soft loans from central banks, etc. But the solution is not to grant these things in the first place. Simple.