Today, in the aftermath of the biggest U.S. financial crisis since the Great Depression, the world looks very different.
Not only did the 2008-2009 meltdown of financial markets seem to expose the fundamental fragility of the capitalist system, but China’s apparent ability to withstand the reverberations of Wall Street’s implosion also suggested the possibility of a new “Beijing Consensus” based on central planning and state control of volatile market forces.
In his book The End of the Free Market, the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer argues that authoritarian governments all over the world have “invented something new: state capitalism”:
In this system, governments use various kinds of state-owned companies to manage the exploitation of resources that they consider the state’s crown jewels and to create and maintain large numbers of jobs. They use select privately owned companies to dominate certain economic sectors. They use so-called sovereign wealth funds to invest their extra cash in ways that maximize the state’s profits. In all three cases, the state is using markets to create wealth that can be directed as political officials see fit. And in all three cases, the ultimate motive is not economic (maximizing growth) but political (maximizing the state’s power and the leadership’s chances of survival). This is a form of capitalism but one in which the state acts as the dominant economic player and uses markets primarily for political gain.
For Bremmer, state capitalism poses a grave “threat” not only to the free market model, but also to democracy in the developing world.
Ultimately, it is an unhelpful oversimplification to divide the world into “market capitalist” and “state capitalist” camps. The reality is that most countries are arranged along a spectrum where both the intent and the extent of state intervention in the economy vary. Only extreme libertarians argue that the state has no role whatsoever to play in the economy. As a devotee of Adam Smith, I accept without qualification his argument in The Wealth of Nations that the benefits of free trade and the division of labor will be enjoyed only in countries with rational laws and institutions. I also agree with Silicon Valley visionary Peter Thiel that, under the right circumstances (e.g., in time of war), governments are capable of forcing the direction and pace of technological change: Think the Manhattan Project.
It is an astonishing yet scarcely acknowledged fact that on no fewer than 14 out of 15 issues relating to property rights and governance, the United States now fares markedly worse than Hong Kong. Even mainland China does better in two areas. Indeed, the United States makes the global top 20 in only one: investor protection, where it is tied for fifth. On every other count, its reputation is shockingly bad.
The implications are clear. If we are to understand the changing relationship between the state and the market in the world today, we must eschew crude generalizations about “state capitalism,” a term that is really not much more valuable today than the Marxist-Leninist term “state monopoly capitalism” was back when Rudolf Hilferding coined it a century ago.
No one seriously denies that the state has a role to play in economic life. The question is what that role should be and how it can be performed in ways that simultaneously enhance economic efficiency and minimize the kind of rent-seeking behavior — “corruption” in all its shapes and forms — that tends to arise wherever the public and private sectors meet.
We are all state capitalists now — and we have been for over a century, ever since the modern state began its steady growth in the late 19th century, when Adolph Wagner first formulated his law of rising state expenditures. But there are myriad forms of state capitalism, from the enlightened autocracy of Singapore to the dysfunctional tyranny of Zimbabwe, from the egalitarian nanny state of Denmark to the individualist’s paradise that is Ron Paul’s Texas.
The real contest of our time is not between a state-capitalist China and a market-capitalist America, with Europe somewhere in the middle. It is a contest that goes on within all three regions as we all struggle to strike the right balance between the economic institutions that generate wealth and the political institutions that regulate and redistribute it.
The character of this century — whether it is “post-American,” Chinese, or something none of us yet expects — will be determined by which political system gets that balance right.