Monday, November 19, 2007

Government and Big Business

You may have noticed a theme running through some of our recent posts on noted investors John Paulson, T. Boone Pickens, and Warren Buffett.

Take a look. It turns out that every one of these posts details the point at which an investor's self interest meets with government regulation. Often to the benefit (or planned benefit) of the investor/business, and at the expense of other individuals, such as yourself.

Now, this theme was apparent in the recent posts on Boone Pickens' foray into the water pipeline business, and Paulson & Co.'s perceived efforts to influence bankruptcy and mortgage legislation for the benefit of their remaining subprime market positions.

However, this theme was not so apparent in our post on Warren Buffett and his continued support of the estate tax. At least, it was not apparent to me until I did some extra reading shortly after making that post.

It turns out that self interest is well represented in Buffett's stance on inheritance taxes, at least according to some observers who feel Buffett's position is a logical outgrowth of his company's investments in life insurance and annuities and his interest in family-owned businesses as acquisition targets for Berkshire Hathaway.

We can argue over the legitimacy of these arguments in each of these instances, but the issue is plainly hanging over them. In a practical sense, we see that businesses and investors seek to use and influence government regulations and legislation to their benefit. They just don't like to advertise that fact.

Having said that, perhaps you will be interested to read the essays, "Government and Big Business", by Christopher Mayer, and, "The Snare of Government Subsidies", by Gary North.

Both articles make some interesting points about the marriage of business and government. Here's a particularly telling excerpt from North's piece:

The idea that businessmen are strong defenders of the free enterprise system is one which is believed only by those who have never studied the history of private enterprise in the Western, industrial nations.

What businessmen are paid to worry about is profit. The problem for the survival of a market economy arises when the voters permit or encourage the expansion of government power to such an extent that private businesses can gain short-term profits through the intervention into the competitive market by state officials.

Offer the typical businessman the opportunity to escape the constant pressures of market competition, and few of them are able to withstand the temptation. In fact, they are rewarded for taking the step of calling in the civil government.

Something to consider the next time someone tries selling our "mixed economy" as a model of the "free enterprise" system.

Still, the situation is not a hopeless one. North concludes his essay by reminding businessmen to first, "avoid sniffing at the bait" of government subsidy, as a matter of principle.

If principle is not enough, he reminds them that the strings attached to government subsidies become chains over time. So, it is better for individuals (even those who are simply pragmatic, rather than principled) to understand this chain of events ahead of time.

Have a look and consider these arguments for yourself.