Economic and business historian Robert Hessen died on Monday, April 15 at age 87.

I wrote some reminiscences of him on my Substack site, “I Blog to Differ.”

Here I want to link to his 2 contributions to my Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

One is his article “Corporations.” Here are two key paragraphs.

Here’s a key paragraph:

To differentiate it from a partnership, a corporation should be defined as a legal and contractual mechanism for creating and operating a business for profit, using capital from investors that will be managed on their behalf by directors and officers. To lawyers, however, the classic definition is Chief Justice John Marshall’s 1819 remark that “a corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law.”1 But Marshall’s definition is useless because it is a metaphor; it makes a corporation a judicial hallucination.

I so often hear people say that corporations are created by the state. It happens especially when I’m on talk shows dealing with callers. That’s false. I always think of how well Bob Hessen dealt with the issue in his article:

Attempts by economists to define corporations have been equally unsatisfactory. In 1917 Joseph S. Davis wrote: “A corporation [is] a group of individuals authorized by law to act as a unit.”2 This definition is defective because it also fits partnerships and labor unions, which are not corporations. Economist Jonathan Hughes wrote that a corporation is a “multiple partnership” and that “the privilege of incorporation is the gift of the state to collective business ventures.”3Economist Robert Heilbroner wrote that a corporation is “an entity created by the state,” granted a charter that enables it to exist “in its own right as a ‘person’ created by law.”4

But charters enacted by state legislatures literally ceased to exist in the mid-nineteenth century. The actual procedure for creating a corporation consists of filing a registration document with a state official (like recording the use of a fictitious business name), and the state’s role is purely formal and automatic. To call incorporation a “privilege” implies that individuals have no right to create a corporation. But why is government permission needed? Who would be wronged if businesses adopted corporate features by contract? Whose rights would be violated if a firm declared itself to be a unit for the purposes of suing and being sued or holding and conveying title to property, or that it would continue in existence despite the death or withdrawal of its officers or investors, or that its shares are freely transferable, or if it asserted limited liability for its debt obligations? (Liability for torts is a separate issue; see Hessen 1979, pp. 18–21.) If potential creditors find any of these features objectionable, they can negotiate to exclude or modify them.

His other entry in the Encyclopedia is “Capitalism.” It’s full of gems. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Capitalism,” a term of disparagement coined by socialists in the mid-nineteenth century, is a misnomer for “economic individualism,” which Adam Smith earlier called “the obvious and simple system of natural liberty” (Wealth of Nations). Economic individualism’s basic premise is that the pursuit of self-interest and the right to own private property are morally defensible and legally legitimate. Its major corollary is that the state exists to protect individual rights. Subject to certain restrictions, individuals (alone or with others) are free to decide where to invest, what to produce or sell, and what prices to charge. There is no natural limit to the range of their efforts in terms of assets, sales, and profits; or the number of customers, employees, and investors; or whether they operate in local, regional, national, or international markets.

Here’s another great paragraph:

In early-nineteenth-century England the most visible face of capitalism was the textile factories that hired women and children. Critics (Richard Oastler and Robert Southey, among others) denounced the mill owners as heartless exploiters and described the working conditions—long hours, low pay, monotonous routine—as if they were unprecedented. Believing that poverty was new, not merely more visible in crowded towns and villages, critics compared contemporary times unfavorably with earlier centuries. Their claims of increasing misery, however, were based on ignorance of how squalid life actually had been earlier. Before children began earning money working in factories, they had been sent to live in parish poorhouses; apprenticed as unpaid household servants; rented out for backbreaking agricultural labor; or became beggars, vagrants, thieves, and prostitutes. The precapitalist “good old days” simply never existed (see industrial revolution and the standard of living).


Despite these constraints, which worked sporadically and unpredictably, the benefits of capitalism were widely diffused. Luxuries quickly were transformed into necessities. At first, the luxuries were cheap cotton clothes, fresh meat, and white bread; then sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods, and musical instruments; then automobiles, washing machines, clothes dryers, and refrigerators; then telephones, radios, televisions, air conditioners, and freezers; and most recently, TiVos, digital cameras, DVD players, and cell phones.

That these amenities had become available to most people did not cause capitalism’s critics to recant, or even to relent. Instead, they ingeniously reversed themselves. Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse proclaimed that the real evil of capitalism is prosperity, because it seduces workers away from their historic mission—the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism—by supplying them with cars and household appliances, which he called “tools of enslavement.”1 Some critics reject capitalism by extolling “the simple life” and labeling prosperity mindless materialism. In the 1950s, critics such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Vance Packard attacked the legitimacy of consumer demand, asserting that if goods had to be advertised in order to sell, they could not be serving any authentic human needs.2 They charged that consumers are brainwashed by Madison Avenue and crave whatever the giant corporations choose to produce and advertise, and complained that the “public sector” is starved while frivolous private desires are being satisfied. And having seen that capitalism reduced poverty instead of intensifying it, critics such as Gar Alperovitz and Michael Harrington proclaimed equality the highest moral value, calling for higher taxes on incomes and inheritances to massively redistribute wealth, not only nationally but also internationally.3