Topic: Political Philosophy

Is Capitalism Dead?

That seems to be the question on the cover of every magazine this week. It’s also the headline of the lead editorial in today’s Washington Post. But the subhead might surprise you.

Is Capitalism Dead?
The market that failed was not exactly free.

The editors begin:

As financial panic spread across the globe and governments scrambled to contain the damage, reality seemed to announce the doom of U.S.-style free markets and President Bush’s ideology. But this is wrong in two ways. The deregulation of U.S. financial markets did not reflect only the narrow ideology of a particular party or administration. And the problem with the U.S. economy, more than lack of regulation, has been government’s failure to control systemic risks that government itself helped to create. We are not witnessing a crisis of the free market but a crisis of distorted markets.

And they go on to note:

We’ll never know how this newly liberated financial sector might have performed on a playing field designed by Adam Smith. That’s because government interventions of all kinds, from the defense budget to farm supports, shaped the business environment. No subsidy would prove more fateful than the massive federal commitment to residential real estate — from the mortgage interest tax deduction to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the Federal Reserve’s low interest rates under Mr. Greenspan. Unregulated derivatives known as credit-default swaps did accentuate the boom in mortgage-based investments, by allowing investors to transfer risk rather than setting aside cash reserves. But government helped make mortgages a purportedly sure thing in the first place. Home prices seemed to stand on a solid floor built by Washington.

Government support for housing was well-intentioned: Homeownership is a worthy goal. But when government favors a particular economic activity, however validly, it must seek countervailing control to ensure the sustainable use of public resources. This is why banks must meet capital requirements in return for federal deposit insurance. Congress did not apply this sound principle to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; they were allowed to engage in profitable but increasingly risky activities with an implicit government guarantee. The result was that taxpayers had to assume more than $5 trillion of their obligations. Contrast U.S. experience with that of Canada, where there is no mortgage interest deduction and the law requires insurance on any mortgage over 80 percent of a home’s purchase price. Delinquency rates at Canada’s seven largest banks are near historic lows.

The new capitalist model that emerges from this crisis must operate according to more consistent principles. The Fed should set interest rates with the long-run value of the dollar in mind. Government must be more selective about manipulating markets; over the long term, business works best when it is subject to market discipline alone. In those cases — and there will and should be some — in which government intervenes on behalf of social goals, its support must be counterbalanced with taxpayer protections and regulation. Government-sponsored, upside-only capitalism is the kind that’s in crisis today, and we say: Good riddance.

That’s not quite what I’d have written. But the ending does remind me of the conclusion of my blog post a week ago:

…if this crisis leads us to question “American-style capitalism” — the kind in which a central monetary authority manipulates money and credit, the central government taxes and redistributes $3 trillion a year, huge government-sponsored enterprises create a taxpayer-backed duopoly in the mortgage business, tax laws encourage excessive use of debt financing, and government pressures banks to make bad loans — well, it might be a good thing to reconsider that “American-style capitalism.”

The End of Jacob Weisberg

In an article for Slate (another version appears in Newsweek) entitled “The End of Libertarianism,” Jacob Weisberg mocks libertarians and other free-market supporters for arguing that interventionist government policies contributed to the financial crisis. In italicized exasperation he cries, “Haven’t you people done enough harm already?” According to Weisberg, it’s already clear that, when it comes to what caused the meltdown, “any competent forensic work has to put the libertarian theory of self-regulating financial markets at the scene of the crime.” Consequently, he argues, libertarians in general have now been utterly discredited. “They are bankrupt,” he concludes, “and this time, there will be no bailout.”

In firing this broadside, Weisberg poses as the pragmatic, empirically minded anti-ideologue. In fact, he is engaging in the lowest and most intellectually trivial form of ideological hack work.

As every good hack does, he bulls ahead with completely unjustified certainty. We’ve just experienced a global disruption of financial markets on a scale not seen in seven decades. And we’re still in the middle of it: the ultimate extent, severity, and consequences of this crisis remain unknown. Yet Weisberg can already sum up the story in a single sentence: the libertarians did it!

But consider the fact that it wasn’t until Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s Monetary History of the United States — published in 1963, three decades after the event — that our contemporary understanding of the causes of the Great Depression began to take shape. That understanding has been further refined by contributions from, among others, Ben Bernanke and Barry Eichengreen during the 1980s and ’90s.

So serious people will be debating what triggered the current crisis for a long time to come. I’ve been reading voraciously in recent weeks, trying to get some handle on what’s going on, and I can tell you that there is nothing like a consensus among scholars yet — and certainly not a consensus in favor of some simple, monocausal explanation.

With regard to government interventionism as a cause of the crisis, Charles Calomiris and Peter Wallison have marshalled strong evidence that Fannie and Freddie played a major role in inflating the real estate bubble. Despite the fact that these two gentlemen have forgotten more about financial markets than Weisberg will ever know, Weisberg dismisses their analysis as not only wrong, but risible.

Here’s what I think, at least at this point. I think the whole system failed. Without a doubt, private actors succumbed to bubble psychology and perverse incentives, and their risk-taking grew increasingly reckless. Yet Weisberg’s simplistic morality tale that good prudent liberals were foiled by go-go free-marketeers doesn’t come close to mapping reality accurately. When exactly did Democrats try to arrest and reverse the steady relaxation of lending standards? When did they try to rein in the GSEs? Meanwhile, European banks are being battered by this crisis as well. Does anybody really think that European financial regulators are closet libertarians?

Far be it from Weisberg, though, to let such inconvenient questions get in the way of his cheap ideological point-scoring. Indeed, he isn’t content just to blame libertarianism for the financial crisis. He goes so far as to claim that libertarianism as a whole has now been decisively repudiated. Wow, talk about contagion! Because of what some people said about financial regulation, we no longer have to pay any attention to what other people say about trade, health care, energy, taxes, federal spending, etc. Here Weisberg further burnishes his hack credentials by demonstrating his facility with the wild, unsubstantiated smear.

To be truly shameless, a hack needs to mix his smears with double standards. And, bless him, Weisberg comes through once again. If one (alleged) error means we never have to listen to someone again, why is anybody still listening to Jacob Weisberg? After all, Weisberg admits that he “blew the biggest foreign-policy decision of the past decade” by supporting the Iraq war. (Full disclosure: I blew it, too, but my colleagues at Cato — whom Weisberg wants to write off for all time — got it right.) By his own standard, then, Weisberg should have had his pundit card permanently revoked.

All too aware of my own fallibility, I’m a more forgiving sort. But with this sloppy, shoddily reasoned attack on me and my colleagues (Cato and Reason, where I’m on the masthead as a contributing editor, are both mentioned by name), Weisberg is definitely testing my limits.

Gods That Fail

Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post has a column titled “Gods That Failed.” He’s referring to a famous book:

In 1949, a number of famous writers, among them Arthur Koestler, André Gide, Richard Wright, Stephen Spender and Ignazio Silone, wrote essays explaining why they were no longer communists. The essays were collected in a volume entitled “The God That Failed.”

And then he makes this analogy: “Today, conservative intellectuals might want to consider writing a tome on the failure of their own beloved deity, unregulated capitalism. “

Where to begin? Certainly we haven’t had any unregulated capitalism lately. As I put it the other day, the kind of capitalism that has encountered the current crisis is “the kind in which a central monetary authority manipulates money and credit, the central government taxes and redistributes $3 trillion a year, huge government-sponsored enterprises create a taxpayer-backed duopoly in the mortgage business, tax laws encourage excessive use of debt financing, and government pressures banks to make bad loans.”

As for conservative intellectuals, some of them may wish for some form of “unregulated capitalism,” though plenty of them – from Russell Kirk to David Brooks and Michael Gerson and that Arkansas Aristotle, Mike Huckabee – have been pretty darn skeptical about capitalism. But whatever the more free-market conservatives may have dreamed of, they didn’t get laissez-faire. Nor did they ever make capitalism their deity, the way communists truly did make the workers’ state their god.

But let’s think about the comparison that Meyerson is making. Some intellectuals once supported communism, and that failed. Some intellectuals, we’ll concede for the moment, were just as enraptured with capitalism; and that system, too, in Meyerson’s view, has failed. Are these equivalent failures?

Communism’s failure involved Stalin’s terror-famine in Ukraine, the Gulag, the deportation of the Kulaks, the Katyn Forest massacre, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Che Guevara’s executions in Havana, the flight of the boat people from Vietnam, Pol Pot’s mass slaughter – a total death toll of 94 million people, according to the Black Book of Communism. Prominent American leftists – from Lillian Hellman and Dalton Trumbo and lots of other writers to Alger Hiss of the State Department and FDR speechwriter Michael Straight, who became the publisher of The New Republic – were members of the party that did these things. And that party had total control in the countries that it ruled. There were no opposition parties, no filibusters, no election-related maneuverings that prevented the party in power from getting what it wanted.

What the Communist Party wanted, it got. Communism in practice was communist theory made real.

In the United States, on the other hand, economic and political outcomes are always the result of jockeying between parties and interest groups. So even if Ronald Reagan and his advisers wanted to give Americans “unregulated capitalism,” they had to deal with Tip O’Neill and the Democrats, and with critics in the media, and with many other players. As these forces played out, in the late 1970s and early 1980s some deregulation did occur, along with some tax-cutting. And indeed there was some financial deregulation in the Clinton years as well.

And what is the ”failure,” as Meyerson puts it, of this semi-deregulated capitalism? Does it involve mass starvation? Does it involve terror-famines? Does it involve millions of deaths? No, so far it involves a sharp decline in the stock market from record levels. Taking 1980 as the starting point for Meyerson’s nightmare vision of “unregulated capitalism,” here’s what has happened to the S&P 500. It’s had some dips, but it still reflects vast wealth creation, and vast increases in the assets of our IRAs and 401(k)s.

(click for larger version)

The “failure” of capitalism and the failure of communism are not morally equivalent, and Meyerson should be embarrassed to even imply such a comparison.

A Libertarian Dilemma

In the November issue of Liberty magazine I write about one factor that I think reduces the political impact of libertarian-leaning voters: the fact that they’re all over the map about which party or faction represents the lesser of the evils:

One reason why libertarians underperform politically is that they are politically split, not just between radicals and incrementalists, as can happen in any political movement, but also among various political movements — while being too small to influence any of them very much.

It seems to me that libertarians come in several political groupings:

(1) Those who care primarily about free markets and thus support conservative Republicans. Given the candidates on offer, that means helping to move the GOP to the right on social issues (and war and civil liberties) as well as on economic issues. This group would include the Club for Growth, Republican “Leave Us Alone” activist Grover Norquist, many donors to free-market thinktanks, and probably most libertarian-leaning politically active people.

(2) Those who want to make the GOP more socially tolerant and thus support moderate Republicans, which effectively means Republicans who aren’t very free-market. This would include Log Cabin Republicans, pro-choice Republicans, and lots of Wall Street and Silicon Valley businesspeople.

(3) Those who think the GOP is irredeemably bad on social issues and civil liberties and thus support Democrats. This would again include some Silicon Valley businessmen who are pro-entrepreneurship and fiscally conservative but just can’t support a party that is opposed to abortion rights and gay rights. A dramatic example is Tim Gill, the founder of Quark, who calls himself a libertarian but has contributed millions of dollars to Democrats because of Republican opposition to gay rights. There are also broadly libertarian people involved in the ACLU, the drug-reform movement, and other civil libertarian causes.

(4) Those who support the Libertarian Party. They don’t get many votes, but they include a large percentage of libertarian activists.

If only some candidate or movement could bring them all together.

The End of American Capitalism?

At the top of today’s front page, the Washington Post joins other Big Media in dancing on the grave of capitalism and smaller government. And compared with such past headlines as “A Fresh Look at the Apostle of Free Markets” or “Crisis Turns Free Marketeers into Regulators,” the Post goes all the way: “The End of American Capitalism?” It does have a question mark.

But what is the Post’s evidence that “American-style capitalism” is a casualty of the financial crisis? Well, for one, “The Bush administration is considering a partial nationalization of some banks.” I’m not sure that an administration that has given us nationalized schools, expanded entitlements, burdensome Sarbanes-Oxley securities regulations (how’d those work out, by the way?), nation-building around the world, and a trillion-dollar increase in federal spending is exactly an example of free-marketers finally giving in to the lure of big government.

But it’s not just American politicians, the Post tells us, who have lost faith in capitalism. “European leaders … are calling for broad new international codes to impose scrutiny on global finance.” So the people who run the U.S. government and the people who run European governments are united in seeking more power for governments.

But wait, there’s more. “To some degree, those calls are even being echoed by the International Monetary Fund.” So even an intergovernmental organization devoted to forced wealth transfers also wants more power for governments.

Also Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz: “We told them if you wanted to be like us, here’s what you have to do — hand over power to the market. The point now is that no one has respect for that kind of model anymore given this crisis.” So the most left-leaning Nobel laureate thinks our policies should move to the left. But if reporter Anthony Faiola had interviewed such recent laureates as Vernon Smith, Ed Prescott, Robert Mundell, Gary Becker, Myron Scholes, Douglass North, or James Buchanan, he might have gotten a different answer.

There’s no question that the global financial crisis is causing people to question how well capitalism works. But we’re still not in any Great Depression. And the evidence in this article is almost entirely that governments are — as usual — taking advantage of a crisis to expand their scope and power.

Of course, if this crisis leads us to question “American-style capitalism” — the kind in which a central monetary authority manipulates money and credit, the central government taxes and redistributes $3 trillion a year, huge government-sponsored enterprises create a taxpayer-backed duopoly in the mortgage business, tax laws encourage excessive use of debt financing, and government pressures banks to make bad loans — well, it might be a good thing to reconsider that “American-style capitalism.”

The Real Problem with the Debate

Arnold Kling offers a strange remark about last night’s presidential debate:

If the candidates were out to correct economic ignorance instead of pandering to it, the debate would not resemble last night’s in any way.

If the two candidates had corrected economic ignorance throughout their careers instead of pandering to it, they would not be the two major candidates for the presidency.  Two other politicians who affirmed economic ignorance and pandered to it would have participated in last night’s debate.

You could say that both Obama and McCain have let their ambition get the better of them, but they are politicians and that is like saying, as many now are, that investors should not seek profits. Both candidates believe spouting economic ignorance provides an apt means to winning the presidency.

Question for the class: what does all this tell us about American democracy?

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.