Laissez-Faire and Corporatism

I’ve just read Steven Horwitz’s excellent “Open Letter to My Friends on the Left,” on the subject of the credit crisis. I highly recommend it, whether you’re on the left or not:

In the last week or two, I have heard frequently from you that the current financial mess has been caused by the failures of free markets and deregulation. I have heard from you that the lust after profits, any profits, that is central to free markets is at the core of our problems. And I have heard from you that only significant government intervention into financial markets can cure these problems, perhaps once and for all. I ask of you for the next few minutes to, in the words of Oliver Cromwell, consider that you may be mistaken. Consider that both the diagnosis and the cure might be equally mistaken.

Consider instead that the problems of this mess were caused by the very kinds of government regulation that you now propose. Consider instead that effects of the profit motive that you decry depend upon the incentives that institutions, regulations, and policies create, which in this case led profit-seekers to do great damage. Consider instead that the regulations that may have been the cause were supported by, as they have often been throughout US history, the very firms being regulated, mostly because they worked to said firms’ benefit, even as they screwed the rest of us. Consider all of this as you ask for more of the same in the name of fixing the problem. And finally, consider why you would ever imagine that those with wealth and power wouldn’t rig a new regulatory process in their favor.

The seemingly arcane difference between laissez-faire and corporatism is one of the most important in today’s public policy debates. Laissez-faire means the equality of all before the law, with the state neither helping nor hindering any market actor. Corporatism means offering special favors to those who’ve already succeeded. (Just for starters: “Too big to fail” is corporatism.)

If only this distinction were more clearly understood by lawmakers, journalists, and the general public. Too often all of these groups just use the vague word “capitalism,” which seems mostly intended to split the difference – or to obscure it. But laissez-faire and corporatism are directly opposed to one another, and if more people on the left understood this, they might be far more sympathetic to free markets. Even, perhaps, while keeping a healthy mistrust of corporations.