The Criminalization of Company Fraud in Nineteenth-Century Britain
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Based on an unparalleled sample of legal cases - many examined here for the first time - James Taylor presents a radical new interpretation of the relationship between capitalism and the law. Initially, there were no criminal sanctions against publishing false prospectuses, concealing losses in balance sheets, and even misappropriating company money. But parliament became convinced of the need to criminalize these practices to protect the culture of stock market investment on which
mid-Victorian prosperity increasingly rested. Persuading judges to play along was harder, with many invoking the principle of caveat emptor to exonerate defendants. But by the end of the century, successful prosecutions of company executives were commonplace. These trials performed multiple functions: they
stabilized confidence in times of crisis; they dramatized the class blindness of the law; and they were increasingly seen as essential as faith in a self-regulating economy ebbed. The criminalization of fraud, therefore, has far-reaching implications for our understanding of nineteenth-century Britain. It also has relevance today in light of the on-going economic crisis and the issues it raises regarding business ethics and the role of the state.