Theory and Society

, Volume 42, Issue 6, pp 589–615 | Cite as

Limited liability and its moral hazard implications: the systemic inscription of instability in contemporary capitalism

  • Marie-Laure Djelic
  • Joel Bothello


The principle of limited liability is one of the defining characteristics of modern corporate capitalism. It is also, we argue in this article, a powerful structural source of moral hazard. Engaging in a double conceptual genealogy, we investigate how the concepts of moral hazard and limited liability have evolved and diffused over time. We highlight two parallel but unconnected paths of construction, diffusion, moral contestation, and eventual institutionalization. We bring to the fore clear elective affinities between both concepts and their respective evolution. Going one step further, we suggest that both concepts have come to be connected through time. In the context of contemporary capitalism, limited liability has to be understood, we argue, as a powerful structural source of moral hazard. In conclusion, we propose that this structural link between limited liability and moral hazard is an important explanatory factor of the systemic instability of contemporary capitalism and, as a consequence, of a pattern of recurrent crises that are regularly disrupting our economies and societies.


Moral hazard Limited liability Systemic instability Financial crisis 



We thank the Academy of Management History Division for selecting an earlier version of this article as the 2013 Winner of the Halloran Award for the Best Paper in Business Ethics. We also thank the Theory and Society Editors and reviewers for highly helpful comments.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ESSEC Business SchoolCergyFrance

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