Unlearning Economics says that capitalism gives us "institutionalized law-breaking":
Corporations have long history of force, fraud and theft...In a system based on private accumulation, they will use their profits to corrupt the legal system, hijack public funds, get the best lawyers, and make their operations as opaque as possible to avoid prosecution, no matter the charge. None of this is a bug of capitalism; it is a feature.
If this sounds like a lefty rant, it shouldn't. It's just elementary economics.
This tells us that firms supply things up to the point at which the marginal benefit equals the marginal cost. But this doesn't merely apply to the supply of goods and services. As Gary Becker showed (pdf) it also applies to crime. Companies (like individuals) will commit crime up to the point at which the benefit of doing so - higher profits - exceeds the cost. In the amoral world of econ 101, the cost is the penalty for being caught (criminal punishment plus loss of business from irate customers), multiplied by the probability of being caught*.
We should, then, expect there to be a positive level of corporate crime and bad behaviour: fraud, money-laundering, breach of health and safety laws, the silencing of critics and so on.
However, it's not just companies for whom the optimum level of crime is positive. The same is true for society as a whole, because the cost of detecting and prosecuting some crimes might exceed the social cost of their commission; there is a reason why the government doesn't employ the whole population as policemen. As David Friedman wrote:
Theft is inefficient—but spending a hundred dollars to prevent a ten-dollar theft is still more inefficient. Reducing theft to zero would almost certainly cost more than it would be worth. What we want, from the standpoint of economic efficiency, is the optimal level of theft. We want to increase our expenditures on law enforcement only as long as one more dollar spent catching and punishing thieves reduces the net cost of theft by more than a dollar. Beyond that point, additional reductions in theft cost more than they are worth.
But here's the thing. The relative cost of investigating corporate crime is very often high; 90 officers are employed by Operation Weeting, for example.If Stephen Green didn't know about HSBC's dealings with money launderers, what chance would the average plod have of finding out?
Given these costs**, we'd expect scarce policing resources to be directed towards lower cost activities such as arresting cyclists.
We would therefore expect companies to commit crime and the state to tolerate this, up to a point. You don't have to be a leftist to see this. You just need to know very basic economics.
* In a world where morality matters, we can add to the cost term a "psychic cost" of the sense of shame and guilt of doing bad things. But there's no reason, a priori, to assume that this psychic cost is so high as to prevent all crime.
** One caveat here is that public outrage about corporate crime might increase the benefits to the state of devoting more resource to its detection. But efficiency requires that such resources be sufficient to placate public anger, not that they be sufficient to prevent all crime.