Opportunism and Internal Affairs

Vincent Buccola (University of Pennsylvania (Wharton))

Abstract: The internal affairs doctrine is the sine qua non of modern corporate law. It assigns to a corporation’s chartering state sole authority to govern relations among constituents “inside” the firm—its stockholders, directors, and officers—while leaving to territorial law the relations between “outside” constituents and the firm. But why law should cleave an enterprise in this way is a puzzle. Economic theories of the firm can’t explain it, and the academic literature is short on answers. This article offers an account of the internal affairs doctrine that simultaneously explains the doctrine’s contours, accords with its historical emergence, and defends its status as one of the economy’s central organizing principles. It argues that the internal affairs rule is best understood as the law’s adaptive response to a collective-action problem distinctive (historically) to stockholders. Because selling shares across state borders is cheap, shares would, absent the rule, tend to flow into jurisdictions that provide stockholders with robust capital withdrawal and control rights, even where such rights, in the aggregate, would undermine the corporate form’s signal virtues. The internal affairs doctrine forestalls opportunistic trading and so facilitates capital formation. Moreover, as this article shows, the doctrine in fact emerged in the years following economic and legal changes that made such trading a threat for the first time. The prospect of opportunism, then, rather than anything inherent in the idea of the firm, defines the corporate boundary.

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