Friday, September 11, 2009

Engineers of Freedom

Yves didn't think much of this Luigi Zingales article, but I actually think she's off base, and I wrote as much in the comments. Being more generous, her basic objection seemed to be that being pro market competition didn't always mean being anti-regulation. I agree with that sentiment; you can't measure the competitiveness of a market solely by the number of rules governing it (though it's not a bad place to start). A careful reading of the article though, reveals that Zingales agree with that too. I know he's from U. Chicago, but let's give him a chance. For example, he talks about the inefficiency of the old regulated banking system from an economic perspective, but it's success from the perspective of keeping the banking system fragmented.

The real effect of Gramm-Leach-Bliley was political, not directly economic. Under the old regime, commercial banks, investment banks, and insurance companies had different agendas, and so their lobbying efforts tended to offset one another. But after the restrictions were lifted, the interests of all the major players in the financial industry became aligned, giving the industry disproportionate power in shaping the political agenda. The concentration of the banking industry only added to this power.

Those are not the words of a man who believes always and everywhere in fewer rules. But let's not belabor the point. The normally perceptive Yves screwed the pooch on this one, but the article is very much worth reading. Here are a few excerpts along with some context to whet your appetite.

First, why is the US more pro market than anywhere else?

American capitalism also developed at a time when government involvement in the economy was quite weak. At the beginning of the 20th century, when modern American capitalism was taking shape, U.S. government spending was only 6.8% of gross domestic product. After World War II, when modern capitalism really took shape in Western European countries, government spending in those countries was, on average, 30% of GDP. Until World War I, the United States had a tiny federal government compared to national governments in other countries. This was due in part to the fact that the U.S. faced no significant military threat to its existence, which allowed the government to spend a relatively small proportion of its budget on the military. The federalist nature of the American regime also did its part to limit the size of the national government.

The centrality of government to the economic system elsewhere has a pretty predictable effect:

In most of the world, the best way to make money is not to come up with brilliant ideas and work hard at implementing them, but to cultivate a government connection. Such cronyism is bound to shape public attitudes about a country's economic system. When asked in a recent study to name the most important determinants of financial success, Italian managers put "knowledge of influential people" in first place (80% considered it "important" or "very important"). "Competence and experience" ranked fifth, behind characteristics such as "loyalty and obedience."

Even the backlash against the concentration of power can end up reinforcing it:

In countries with prominent and influential Marxist parties, pro-market and pro-business forces were compelled to merge to fight the common enemy. If one faces the prospect of nationalization (i.e., the control of resources by a small political elite), even relationship capitalism (which involves control of those resources by a small business elite) becomes an appealing alternative.

The basic mechanism behind the instability of free markets in a democratic system where elections cost money is also pretty clear:

True capitalism lacks a strong lobby. That assertion might appear strange in light of the billions of dollars firms spend lobbying Congress in America, but that is exactly the point. Most lobbying seeks to tilt the playing field in one direction or another, not to level it. Most lobbying is pro-business, in the sense that it promotes the interests of existing businesses, not pro-market in the sense of fostering truly free and open competition. Open competition forces established firms to prove their competence again and again; strong successful market players therefore often use their muscle to restrict such competition, and to strengthen their positions. As a result, serious tensions emerge between a pro-market agenda and a pro-business one, though American capitalism has always managed this tension far better than most.

While the US is probably still more free market than rip-off nations everywhere, it is an exorbitant privilege that can be revoked:

Although the United States has the great advantage of having started from a superior model of capitalism and having developed an ideology to support it, our system is still vulnerable to these pressures — and not only in a crisis. Even the most persuasive and resilient ideology cannot long outlive the conditions and reasoning that generated it. American capitalism needs vocal defenders who understand the threats it faces — and who can make its case to the public. But in the last 30 years, as the threat of global communism has waned and disappeared, capitalism's defenders have grown fewer, while the temptations of corporatism have grown greater. This has helped set the stage for the crisis we now face — and left us less able to discern how we might recover from it.

So finally we have a choice of where we want to go. Towards the free market, or towards a sort of capitalism, or corporatism, or, dare we say it, a national socialism for the rich?

We thus stand at a crossroads for American capitalism. One path would channel popular rage into political support for some genuinely pro-market reforms, even if they do not serve the interests of large financial firms. By appealing to the best of the populist tradition, we can introduce limits to the power of the financial industry — or any business, for that matter — and restore those fundamental principles that give an ethical dimension to capitalism: freedom, meritocracy, a direct link between reward and effort, and a sense of responsibility that ensures that those who reap the gains also bear the losses. This would mean abandoning the notion that any firm is too big to fail, and putting rules in place that keep large financial firms from manipulating government connections to the detriment of markets. It would mean adopting a pro-market, rather than pro-business, approach to the economy.

The alternative path is to soothe the popular rage with measures like limits on executive bonuses while shoring up the position of the largest financial players, making them dependent on government and making the larger economy dependent on them. Such measures play to the crowd in the moment, but threaten the financial system and the public standing of American capitalism in the long run. They also reinforce the very practices that caused the crisis. This is the path to big-business capitalism: a path that blurs the distinction between pro-market and pro-business policies, and so imperils the unique faith the American people have long displayed in the legitimacy of democratic capitalism.

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