By Phil Mattera, Dirt Diggers Digest

It’s only a few months to the presidential election, and the economy is still a mess, yet the candidates have been arguing over the secret of success in business.

This is an old and tired debate, and neither side is saying anything novel. Romney is reciting the chamber of commerce fairy tale that business achievement is the result purely of hard work and risk-taking on the part of lone entrepreneurs. Obama mostly accepts that narrative but meekly points out that business owners also depend on government-provided infrastructure and thus should pay a slightly larger share of the taxes needed to fund those roads, bridges and the like.

Both men talk as if we were still in an early 19th Century economy of small enterprises that live or die based on individual effort and minimal government activity -- rather than the century-old reality that megacorporations are what dominate American commerce.

When the candidates do acknowledge the existence of big business, it is mainly to offer competing proposals on how to serve its needs. For the Republicans, this means further weakening of regulation and the dismantling of the corporate income tax. While the Democrats make some noise about controlling business excesses, nothing much comes of this, and their main goal seems to be that of bribing large corporations with incentives so they don’t abandon the U.S. economy entirely.

What both sides forget is that corporations exist at the behest of government -- in nearly all cases state governments, which authorize their creation. The original ones were established to enlist private participation in government initiatives such as building canals. Before the Civil War, corporations were allowed to engage only in designated activities and could not grow beyond a certain size. It was to get around these limitations that robber barons such as Rockefeller created the trusts that came to control so much of American industry, prompting the passage of the Sherman Act and other antitrust efforts.

Whatever progress started to be made in thwarting the hyper-concentration of business was undermined when New Jersey and then Delaware rewrote their corporation laws to allow companies to do pretty much whatever they pleased and to become as big as they  wished in the process. Eventually, other states followed suit. The corporate form, once a privilege granted for special purposes, became an entitlement for any pool of money seeking to make a profit behind the shield of limited liability.

What presidential candidates should be debating is whether the time has come to tighten state corporation laws or replace them entirely with a federal system of chartering, as Ralph Nader and his colleagues argued in the 1970s.

Nader’s effort was prompted by a wave of revelations about corporate misconduct that came out of the Watergate investigations. Today we have our own corporate crime wave: recent cases of foreign bribery (Wal-Mart), illegal marketing of prescription drugs (GlaxoSmithKline and others), manipulation of interest rates (Barclays) and pipeline negligence (Enbridge Energy) come on the heels of the Wall Street mortgage securities fiasco, the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Massey Energy coal mining disaster.

If we have to talk about success in business, the question we should be considering is whether any large company succeeds without engaging in illegal, or at least unethical and exploitative, behavior. In spite of all the talk about corporate social responsibility, it is difficult to find a major firm that does not cross the line in one way or another.

Take the most successful company of recent years: Apple. Thanks to a series of investigative reports, we now know that Apple’s business achievements are based on a foundation of underpaid workers, both in its foreign factories and its domestic retail stores. On top of that, the company engages in flagrant tax avoidance, and despite its gargantuan profits, it forces state governments to hand over big subsidies when it builds data centers.

Sure, Apple made use of the type of public infrastructure President Obama likes to talk about. Yet the biggest benefit it and other large companies receive from government is the unwillingness to engage in serious regulation and to prosecute corporate crime to the fullest, which would mean an end to the current practice of deferred prosecutions and other forms of wrist-slapping.

Forget about roads and bridges: the real secret of business success is government tolerance of corporate misconduct.