Question: Under laissez-faire capitalism, is there any provision for a company or industry that attempts to suppress information that could be damaging to it? As an example, take the discovery that smoking and lung cancer are linked. Should an entity (individual, business, or industry) that discovers such self-damaging information be required to disclose it? Is this sort of thing covered by fraud law, and if not, what is the Objectivist answer?
Answer: Under laissez-faire capitalism, I doubt that there would be any blanket legal duty to reveal information that would harm one’s business. But that does not mean that suppression of useful information would be commonplace.
Laissez-faire capitalism, as Objectivism advocates it, is based in a political system that strictly respects individual rights to property, personal liberty, and contract. Thus it would be legal under such a system for a firm to contract with employees to restrict the publication of any information they discover. Of course, it would be legal, too, for people to refuse any such employment contract.
I am not certain of the legal details, but it seems reasonable to expect that even under laissez-faire, any person selling a product would enter into some (perhaps implicit) contractual relations with buyers that could likely constrain him to provide truthful information about the product. So there might be grounds for fraud charges if, for example, a firm advertises a product as healthy when in fact it poses a substantial health risk. This might place legal constraints on some types of behavior, and in this way the keeping secret of detrimental information could, if the case were clear enough, create a case for fraud.
In the mixed economy we have inherited from the Progressive Era and the New Deal, we tend to look to the structure of government and legally-authorized institutions to handle issues such as consumer protection, health investigations, drug testing, and so on. People used to this political landscape sometimes imagine that under laissez-faire, the social institutions would be as truncated as the government itself would be. This is a mistake.
Under laissez-faire, people will work to develop a robust and efficient set of watchdog institutions and practices.
People have free will, so there is nothing certain about the future evolution of any society. But as long as people are guided by reason and a long-range view of their interests, it makes sense to expect that, left free to choose their contracts and institutions, they will work under laissez-faire to develop a robust and efficient set of watchdog institutions and practices. One useful type of institution might work like an improved version of the “Good Housekeeping” Seal of Approval: it would be a brand licensed to firms under certain conditions to provide a signal to the public that the firm’s products are sound or that the firm subscribes to certain basic standards.
Consumers and consumer-advocate organizations would need to be inventive of and supportive of such organizations. But if they were, it makes sense to envision a society in which reputable firms would be audited for various aspects of their behavior, including product quality and accounting practices, and in which individuals would give their business to reputable firms. Independent foundations, universities, and the media would need to conduct independent research into causes of public interest. Errors there might be, but there would also be a bustling, lively, and, I daresay, more objective system of oversight than we now have.
So I think it safe to say that for a variety of reasons, gross deceit by important business firms can be expected to be short-lived and relatively uncommon under a system of laissez-faire supported by healthy cultural values. And indeed, we see that even today’s marketplace does not tolerate shady behavior for long: it took just a few years for WorldCom’s fraudulent accounting to bring the firm to its knees; by contrast Congress and President Bush have recently perpetrated a massive fraud in their cost projections for the Medicare drug benefit, and may expect that their chief opponents will not criticize them too loudly on that score. That’s the contrast of the flexibility and transparency of voluntary institutions versus the opacity and enduring corruption we can expect from coercive institutions.