A reader has asked me about the libertarian answer to insider trading. This is indeed a tough one at first glance. How exactly can a society without a monopoly public government prevent the 'dangers' people associate with insider trading?
First, it's necessary to point out that insider trading does not involve the initiation of force against someone, so it shouldn't be illegal even under a minimal state. Insider trading laws are designed to prevent corporate insiders from profiting from non-public information obtained in the performance of their fiduciary duties to the corporation. At worst, this could result in a civil suit (if the insider violated an agreement with the corporation), but not a criminal charge levied by government prosecutors. If profiting from non-public information should be illegal in one instance, why not in all? Shouldn't everyone who's ever gotten a job because they knew the right person be prosecuted? Should someone be thrown in jail because they work in the kitchen of a less than sanitary restaurant and wisely avoid eating the food there?
And even if insider trading in some instance resulted in the loss of stock value for other shareholders, there's nothing inherently wrong with that. There is no such thing as the right to the value of something. You don't have the right to a particular value of your home, and you likewise don't have the right to a particular value of stocks you own. Value is determined by the interaction of a multitude of individuals and their economic decisions. To claim a right to the value of something is to claim the right to control the decisions of all those other people. This simple reductio ad absurdum shows that there is no right to value, only to actual property.
Insider trading prohibitions have to do with information and its use. Information is not inherently owed to anyone. Information has value. It takes effort to acquire information. Some people and firms specialize in acquiring information. They can charge others for access to that information, either on a case by case basis, or by monthly subscription, or some other arrangement. Some information requires more effort to acquire and would thus command a higher price in an open market. In a completely free society, it's likely that businesses and organizations would emerge to collect and disseminate information about insider trading. Today we already have things like Consumer Reports--people pay money to get the scoop on various goods and services. The Wall Street Journal already publishes insider trading information on a weekly basis.
More to the point, as Milton Friedman and other economists have argued, insider trading is actually a good thing. Corporate executives unloading the stock of their own company sends a signal to anyone paying attention that all is not well with that company, and it does so much faster and more completely than any process resulting from government mandates and restrictions.
There is no rational basis for the prohibition of insider trading. It stems, as many have observed, from envy--from a deep socialistic impulse in many people to prevent others from being wealthier than themselves. I give great strategic credit to the socialists that they've succeeded over the past century in their propaganda efforts to convince so many Americans that there's actually something bad and 'un-American' about insider trading. If only the defenders of freedom and prosperity were so strategically adept in this 'battle for the hearts and minds' of America!
As always, I welcome any reader comments or suggestions for future blog posts. I want to write about the issues you're interested in--so send me your thoughts!
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