Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Charms of the Bourgeoisie

The new Nobel Laureate has an article out in the Wall Street Journal, on his current interest- the "dynamism" of economies.

There are two economic systems in the West. Several nations--including the U.S., Canada and the U.K.--have a private-ownership system marked by great openness to the implementation of new commercial ideas coming from entrepreneurs, and by a pluralism of views among the financiers who select the ideas to nurture by providing the capital and incentives necessary for their development. Although much innovation comes from established companies, as in pharmaceuticals, much comes from start-ups, particularly the most novel innovations. This is free enterprise, a k a capitalism.

The other system--in Western Continental Europe--though also based on private ownership, has been modified by the introduction of institutions aimed at protecting the interests of "stakeholders" and "social partners." The system's institutions include big employer confederations, big unions and monopolistic banks. Since World War II, a great deal of liberalization has taken place. But new corporatist institutions have sprung up: Co-determination (cogestion, or Mitbestimmung) has brought "worker councils" (Betriebsrat); and in Germany, a union representative sits on the investment committee of corporations. The system operates to discourage changes such as relocations and the entry of new firms, and its performance depends on established companies in cooperation with local and national banks. What it lacks in flexibility it tries to compensate for with technological sophistication. So different is this system that it has its own name: the "social market economy" in Germany, "social democracy" in France and "concertazione" in Italy.

He explains that those who created the European systems had wonderful faith in the intelligence and benevolence of centralized systems.

When building the massive structures of corporatism in interwar Italy, theoreticians explained that their new system would be more dynamic than capitalism--maybe not more fertile in little ideas, such as might come to petit-bourgeois entrepreneurs, but certainly in big ideas. Not having to fear fluid market conditions, an entrenched company could afford to develop radical innovation. And with industrial confederations and state mediation available, such companies could arrange to avoid costly duplication of their investments. The state and its instruments, the big banks, could intervene to settle conflicts about the economy's direction. Thus the corporatist economy was expected to usher in a new futurismo that was famously symbolized by Severini's paintings of fast trains. (What was important was that the train was rushing forward, not that it ran on time.)

Friedrich Hayek and others showed that a pure capitalist system, by enabling experimentation and encouraging the participation of everyone, would maximize dynamism.

First, virtually everyone right down to the humblest employees has "know-how," some of what Michael Polanyi called "personal knowledge" and some merely private knowledge, and out of that an idea may come that few others would have. In its openness to the ideas of all or most participants, the capitalist economy tends to generate a plethora of new ideas.

Second, the pluralism of experience that the financiers bring to bear in their decisions gives a wide range of entrepreneurial ideas a chance of insightful evaluation. And, importantly, the financier and the entrepreneur do not need the approval of the state or of social partners. Nor are they accountable later on to such social bodies if the project goes badly, not even to the financier's investors. So projects can be undertaken that would be too opaque and uncertain for the state or social partners to endorse. Lastly, the pluralism of knowledge and experience that managers and consumers bring to bear in deciding which innovations to try, and which to adopt, is crucial in giving a good chance to the most promising innovations launched. Where the Continental system convenes experts to set a product standard before any version is launched, capitalism gives market access to all versions.

He then argues that the great benefit of such dynamism accrues to the employees

The concept that people need problem-solving and intellectual development originates in Europe: There is the classical Aristotle, who writes of the "development of talents"; later the Renaissance figure Cellini, who jubilates in achievement; and Cervantes, who evokes vitality and challenge. In the 20th century, Alfred Marshall observed that the job is in the worker's thoughts for most of the day. And Gunnar Myrdal wrote in 1933 that the time will soon come when more satisfaction derives from the job than from consuming. The American application of this Aristotelian perspective is the thesis that most, if not all, of such self-realization in modern societies can come only from a career. Today we cannot go tilting at windmills, but we can take on the challenges of a career. If a challenging career is not the main hope for self-realization, what else could be? Even to be a good mother, it helps to have the experience of work outside the home.

And a comment that probably applies to India:

Why, then, if the "downside" is so exaggerated, is capitalism so reviled in Western Continental Europe? It may be that elements of capitalism are seen by some in Europe as morally wrong in the same way that birth control or nuclear power or sweatshops are seen by some as simply wrong in spite of the consequences of barring them. And it appears that the recent street protesters associate business with established wealth; in their minds, giving greater latitude to businesses would increase the privileges of old wealth. By an "entrepreneur" they appear to mean a rich owner of a bank or factory, while for Schumpeter and Knight it meant a newcomer, a parvenu who is an outsider. A tremendous confusion is created by associating "capitalism" with entrenched wealth and power. The textbook capitalism of Schumpeter and Hayek means opening up the economy to new industries, opening industries to start-up companies, and opening existing companies to new owners and new managers. It is inseparable from an adequate degree of competition. Monopolies like Microsoft are a deviation from the model.

He argues that even Rawls' conception of Justice appears risk-averse only because we have always insisted that work is only about money

Yet the tone here is wrong. As Kant also said, persons are not to be made instruments for the gain of others. Suppose the wage of the lowest- paid workers was foreseen to be reduced over the entire future by innovations conceived by entrepreneurs. Are those whose dream is to find personal development through a career as an entrepreneur not to be permitted to pursue their dream?

To respond, we have to go outside Rawls's classical model, in which work is all about money. In an economy in which entrepreneurs are forbidden to pursue their self-realization, they have the bottom scores in self-realization--no matter if they take paying jobs instead--and that counts whether or not they were born the "least advantaged." So even if their activities did come at the expense of the lowest-paid workers, Rawlsian justice in this extended sense requires that entrepreneurs be accorded enough opportunity to raise their self-realization score up to the level of the lowest-paid workers--and higher, of course, if workers are not damaged by support for entrepreneurship. In this case, too, then, the introduction of entrepreneurial dynamism serves to raise Rawls's bottom scores.

Over at Asymmetrical Information, Jane Galt has a fine post on the relative importance of economic versus civil liberty. Her point would resonate with anyone who has shut his trap simply to avoid annoying his manager.

Working in technology in the 1990's, I had a fair number of friends and colleagues from the former Soviet Union. One of the things that surprised me was the way they described living under totalitarianism in the 1970's and 1980's. To them, the risk you took in joining the wrong group or saying the wrong thing was not, as it had been under Stalin, the risk of the KGB showing up one misty night to make you "disappear". It wasn't even going to the (horrible and often deadly) Soviet jails. The risk was that you would lose your job, or your apartment, or both. This was a very, very effective deterrant to any sort of dissidence.

When the State is the sole employer, where do you go if you anger it?

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