Unequal enforcement of the law will distort and destroy any capitalist society, and we may be witnessing just such a downward spiral in the financial sector.
Capitalism is not an abstract idea. It is an economic system with a distinct set of underlying principles that must exist in order for the system to work. One of these principles is equal justice. In its absence, parties will stop entering into transactions that create overall wealth for our society. Justice must be blind so that both parties — whether weak or powerful — can assume that an agreement between them will be equally enforced by the courts.
There is a second, perhaps even more fundamental, reason that equal justice is essential for capitalism to work. When unequal justice prevails, the party that does not need to follow the law has a distinct competitive advantage. A corporation that knowingly breaks the law will find ways to profit through illegal means that are not available to competitors. As a consequence, the competitive playing field is biased toward the company that does not need to follow the rules.
The net result of unequal justice is likely to be the destruction of the overall wealth of our society. I don’t mean the wealth of individuals; I mean the total wealth of goods and services that are the benefits of healthy competition. To the extent that unequal justice prevails, entities that are exempt from the laws will, in all likelihood, be more profitable than law abiding competitors. Then they use their profits to further weaken competitors by using their illegal profits to further build their businesses at the expense of competitors. All of this business building activity is based on a foundation of sand, and ultimately the entire industry — or even the larger economy — becomes distorted. The “rogue” company gains power, changes markets, and destroys direct and indirect competitors because it is playing by different rules.
The above scenario is not simply a hypothetical example. It is exactly what happened at Worldcom. As the company succeeded because of its then-unknown illegal activities, it grew, managed to take over MCI (one of the true innovators in the industry), and weakened competitors who could not match its profitability. Ultimately the whole edifice collapsed, causing massive wealth destruction in the telecommunications industry and the economy as a whole.
In the WorldCom example, appropriate legal enforcement and prosecution did not occur until the accounting fraud and other crimes were detected. Thus, while it is more an example of undetected accounting fraud than unequal justice, the results are illustrative. In a society with unequal justice, the appropriate laws are never enforced, so entities acting outside the law continue to grow more profitable and powerful (as compared to everyone operating according to the rules). Moreover, the profits from illegal activities can be used to subsidize competition across the spectrum of business activities of companies acting outside the law — which further enforces the competitive advantage, and possible hegemony, of entities operating on a different playing field.