Why corporations?

Arnold Kling asks: “Why Large Corporations?” I left a comment citing Peter Thiel’s answer:

Companies exist because they optimally address internal and external coordination costs. In general, as an entity grows, so do its internal coordination costs. But its external coordination costs fall. Totalitarian government is entity writ large; external coordination is easy, since those costs are zero. But internal coordination, as Hayek and the Austrians showed, is hard and costly; central planning doesn’t work.

The flipside is that internal coordination costs for independent contractors are zero, but external coordination costs (uniquely contracting with absolutely everybody one deals with) are very high, possibly paralyzingly so. Optimality—firm size—is a matter of finding the right combination.

This applies to corporations more generally, but large corporations presumably persist because they continue to solve this class of problem. Corporations also solve or ameliorate succession and other problems; one way of re-stating Thiel’s point is that corporations help align the interests of a lot of people in approximately the same direction. This mechanism obviously isn’t perfect, but it’s better than alternatives.

IMG_0298Skepticism of corporations is useful, but only when skeptics understand the problems corporations solve. I took a grad seminar on the Modernism / Postmodernism divide and was assigned the movie The Corporation, which is heavy on innuendo and rhetorical slight-of-hand and light on intellectual acuity. When the seminar discussed the movie, my classmates were happy to assume that corporations are evil—but they couldn’t identify why they exist, let alone offer coherent alternatives that don’t have obvious drawbacks. I’m not in love with the corporate legal form as some kind of ideal, but without a plausible alternative, feeling-based criticism isn’t terribly helpful. It’s like people who criticize coal power plants. . . and nuclear. . . and other viable, large-scale options.

In the seminar’s discussion, other students and the professor conflated publicly-traded corporations with privately traded ones and LLCs with C Corps, etc. (Incidentally, if you want to listen to something hilarious yet depressing, get a bunch of English grad students and professors together and tell them to talk about business). They also thought that all corporations exist solely to make money. That’s not true: Corporations do what their shareholders tell them to do. As far as I know, courts have decided that publicly traded companies need to maximize shareholder value, but single-owner corporations can do whatever the single owner or small group of owners wants them to.

Thiel says this about the advantages of starting a new corporation to accomplish some task:

The easiest answer to “why startups?” is negative: because you can’t develop new technology in existing entities. There’s something wrong with big companies, governments, and non-profits. Perhaps they can’t recognize financial needs; the federal government, hamstrung by its own bureaucracy, obviously overcompensates some while grossly undercompensating others in its employ. Or maybe these entities can’t handle personal needs; you can’t always get recognition, respect, or fame from a huge bureaucracy. Anyone on a mission tends to want to go from 0 to 1. You can only do that if you’re surrounded by others to want to go from 0 to 1. That happens in startups, not huge companies or government.

Usually, developing “new technology” dovetails with making money, but it doesn’t necessarily have to: you could in principle start a nonprofit technology company to conduct research or develop a product (in some businesses, competition between for- and non-profits is common: think of healthcare, or gyms). That no one or almost no one goes this route means that it could be an under-explored avenue for creative and technological success. Or it could be a deadend, and no one goes down it because doing so would be stupid.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Personal Fiscal Responsibility - Living With PS

  2. This is the theory of the firm. The rise of internet platforms has enabled the reduction of coordination costs, hence made possible a reversion to contracting ; what was called “putting out” system in the 19th century and the gig economy of today. A different aspect is limited liability which enables even greater risk sharing than the simple pooling of risks enabled by partnership and unlimited companies.


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