Rule-of-law and U.S. Competitiveness

Policies such as Sarbanes-Oxley are reducing America’s competitiveness, but an equally worrisome problem is the erosion of the rule-of-law.

Stability and equal treatment are among the characteristics of an advanced legal system. Unfortunately, America’s legal system is now riddled with uncertainty, since investors and companies have no way of predicting outcomes.

The New York Sun has a column noting how America’s justice system is now an obstacle rather than an inducement to international investment:

[T]he American share of global initial public offerings declined to 5% from 50% in the last five years. Foreign companies are being scared away in part, both reports conclude, by soaring costs of American law.

The highwater mark for securities lawsuits was reached in 2005, with over $9 billion in class action settlements. The zeal of American prosecutors in corporate scandals is also of a different order of magnitude. In 2004, government fines in America totalled $4.74 billion, over 100 times more than in Britain, which had a total of $40.48 million. Sarbanes-Oxley, the federal law that imposes higher accountability standards on corporate boards, has almost tripled auditing costs for small public companies.

Perhaps the most chilling parts of the Bloomberg-Schumer report are the surveys of foreign business leaders who suggest, overwhelmingly, that they no longer trust American law. For most of the last century, trust in American commercial and securities law was one of our greatest competitive advantages. Investors flocked to our markets because securities laws guaranteed transparency and honesty. American contract law was the gold standard for world business, in part because of a long tradition of judges rigidly applying guidelines of liability and damages.

Economist Douglass North received a Nobel prize in part for his work on the vital role of legal stability in economic prosperity. An “essential element of the concept of justice,” legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart observed, “is the principle of treating like cases alike.” That’s why law is the foundation of freedom — people know where they stand. They can act freely instead of looking over their shoulders all day long.

But that trust has now capsized. Companies are afraid that if a few employees out of thousands do something wrong — even if not material to the bottom line — the company faces the prospect of ruin. An indictment, not a conviction, could put a company out of business. Why roll the legal dice in America when legal systems in Britain and elsewhere focus on punishing the individual wrongdoer, not shooting everyone in sight?

It’s impossible to measure how much distrust of law has contributed to declining competitiveness. But the evidence is all around us. Just talk with foreign business leaders.

The main victims of this trend, however, are employees and their pension plans. Drying up of markets means that countless people lose job opportunities and that innovation moves offshore. Trust, once lost, is hard to regain.

Tort reforms limiting damages don’t get close to the heart of the problem. American justice has a deeper flaw — it no longer reliably distinguishes right from wrong. Instead, decisions are made on an ad hoc basis, jury by jury, without predictable boundaries.