We are clearly heading toward another great debate about the nature of capitalism. Contemporary capitalism’s critics are becoming both bolder and more intellectually rigorous. Protests and discussions are sprouting up all over the place.
For example, this week I was attending the Aspen Action Forum, a gathering of young business and NGO leaders selected because of their work for social change. My friend and Times colleague Anand Giridharadas delivered a courageous and provocative keynote address that ruffled some feathers, earned a standing ovation and has had people talking ever since.
Anand argued that a rough etiquette has developed among those who work in and raise money for nonprofits. The rich are to be praised for the good they do with their philanthropy, but they are never to be challenged for the harm they do in their businesses. “Capitalism’s rough edges must be sanded and its surplus fruit shared, but the underlying system must NEVER be questioned,” he said.
Anand suggested that in these days of growing income inequality, this approach is no longer good enough. “Sometimes I wonder,” he said, “whether these various forms of giving back have become to our era what the papal indulgence was to the Middle Ages: a relatively inexpensive way of getting oneself seemingly on the right side of justice, without having to alter the fundamentals of one’s life.”
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The winners of our age, he continued, may be helping society with their foundations, but in their business enterprises, the main occupation of their life, they are doing serious harm. First they are using political and financial muscle to enact policies that help them “stack up, protect and bequeath the money.”
Second, they offload risks and volatility onto workers. Uber’s owners have a lot of security but they deny any responsibility for their workers’ “lives, health, desire for career growth.”
Third, the owners of capital are increasingly remote from their communities. “In the old days, if a company CEO suddenly dumped the defined-benefits pension, you knew who to go see to complain. Today it may be an unseen private equity fund that lobbies for the change.” The virtualization of ownership insulates the privileged from the “devastating consequences” of their decisions.
Anand’s speech struck me as deeply patriotic in its passion and concern. He didn’t offer a policy agenda to address these deep structural problems, but his description of them implied that government would have to get much more heavily involved in corporate governance and private-sector investment decisions than ever before.
Indeed, progressive economists are already walking down this path. Hillary Clinton’s new tax plan is based on the assumption that government officials are smart enough to tell investors how they should time their investments. Her corporate governance proposals are based on the idea that federal officials know better than executives how they should run their own companies. There will be much more of this in years to come.
This strikes me as a departure from recent progressivism. In the recent past progressives have argued for a little redistribution to fund human capital development: early childhood education, child and family leave, better community colleges.
But the next wave of thinking implies that it is not enough to simply give people access to capitalism and provide them with a safety net. The underlying system has to be reconfigured.
This is a bigger debate.
People like me will argue that it’s a wrong turn. First, government planners are not smart enough to plan complex systems in this way. The beauty of capitalism is that it takes a dim view of human reason. No group of experts is smart enough to allocate the resources of society well. Capitalism sets up a system of discovery as different people compete and adapt in accordance with market signals. If you try to get technocratic planners organizing investment markets or internal business governance, you will wind up with perversities and rigidities that will make everything worse.
Second, the attempt to tame the market will end up stultifying it. Everybody knows that capitalism’s creative destruction can be rough. But over the last few decades, a ragged version of global capitalism in places ranging from China to Nigeria has brought about the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. America’s fluid style of capitalism attracts driven and talented immigrants and creates vast waves of technological innovation. This dynamism is always in danger of being stultified by planners who think they can tame it and by governing elites who want to rig it. We should not take it for granted.
The coming debate about capitalism will be between those who want to restructure the underlying system and those who want to help people take advantage of its rough intensity. It will be between people who think you need strong government to defeat oligarchy and those who think you need open competition.
This will be fun.