Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Libertarian Perspective on "Too Big to Fail"

As the government continues to “bailout” failing corporations such as General Motors, Chrysler, American Investment Group (AIG), and a host of other financial institutions, the “too big to fail principle” has been cited as the primary justification for these rescue packages. This is a utilitarian principle that implies that the costs of “allowing” these corporations to fail outweigh the benefits; that is, if they fail others will fail and unemployment will rise. Although most economists seem to accept this utilitarian justification, no one has offered any explanation of how these corporations got “too big to fail.” Let’s explore two alternative explanations. The free market explanation is that corporations get “big” because they offer higher quality products and/or services at a lower cost than their rivals. These natural monopolies get “big” because they defeat their competition. In the absence of competition these monopolies raise prices and earn windfall profits. But natural monopolies are usually short-lived because other corporations can see their success, copy their strategies and/or improve upon those strategies. This process of weeding out the “unfit” (inefficient) competitors and inspiring competitors that are more “fit” (efficient) is called “creative destruction.” Unfortunately, there are other ways for corporations to “destroy” their competition. The second way to “get big” is to raise the cost of competing in a market by artificially raising the cost of others entering the competition. The easiest way for “big” corporations to stifle competition from smaller, more innovative companies is by lobbying government officials to raise the cost of competing by imposing costly regulations. These artificial monopolies can maintain their stature, regardless of their actual “fitness.” In fact, most artificial monopolies are downright inept: U.S. Postal Service, Public Schools, Public Utilities, etc. Now, how did AIG (American International Group) get “too big to fail?” Did it “take-over” its competitors because it was more “fit” or because it was more adept at lobbying government? The basic problem with the “too big to fail principle," is that if a corporation is “too big to fail” in the eyes of the government, it can take risks that other smaller, risk-sensitive corporations cannot. This leads to the proliferation of large, inefficient corporations that are protected from failure. Then, these maladapted corporations proceed to takeover over smaller, more efficient corporations. In short, the “too big to fail principle” tends to undermine “creative destruction.” Libertarians argue that when governments artificially prop up obviously inefficient corporations that take irrational risks, and reward incompetent executives with bonus pay, they also drive good corporations out of business. Would you rather invest in, work for, or buy from an inefficient corporation that is “too big to fail;” or invest in, work for, or buy from an efficient corporation that will probably be driven out of business by an inefficient corporation that is “too big to fail?” If you owned a smaller, more innovative, and more efficient competitor would you rather continue to compete with a corporation that is “too big to fail,” or agree to a lucrative takeover offer? The libertarian view on the “too big to fail principle” is that it undermines “creative destruction,” and leads to endless cycles of future government bailouts. But more than that it gives rise to an enormously destructive corollary the “too small to succeed principle.”


Charles said...

The current proposal to allow the government to take over and unwind large corporation that get into AIG situations would create the incentive for large corps to take on more risk and is likely to create more future failures. Simply tranfering the cost of the unwinding to the taxpayer.

Freedom's Philosopher said...

Thanks Charles! So the number of large risk-insensitive corporations (that know that taxpayers will bail them out)will proliferate and drive smaller, innovative, risk-sensitive corporations out of business. Of course, government's abilty to undermine "creative destruction" (in this particular way)is limited ONLY by the ability to print more money.

writewriterandtutor said...

You ask how do these corporations become too big to fail. When I look at the rise of monopolies historically, they occur from "unfettered capitalism" that is--the bull crap that markets are rational and we must all leave them alone to make money. Monopolies concentrate after periods of deregulation--there is competition at first, but quickly the first swallows up the second until monopolies remain. The only creative destruction for monopolies is regulation or dismantling the corporation--like happened with ATT.