Rethinking Liberalism 1: capitalism

In my last post I suggest that liberalism, and its British variant Liberalism, had lost its way. To many people it does not address the key issues of today, and looks to be a political irrelevance. I want to address this by thinking about how liberals, and British Liberal Democrats, should deal with these critical issues. In my first essay I will take on the burning issue for the political left: what to do about capitalism?

To get a flavour of how some on the left are thinking, read thus piece by David Graeber in last weekend’s Guardian: Savage capitalism is back – and it will not tame itself. Mr Graeber is a self-described anarchist, who wrote Debt: the first 5,000 years, which I reviewed last year. His view is that the capitalists are taking over the political system, and pushing everybody else into effective slavery (though he doesn’t put it quite like that). Stopping them will take more than a bit of polite political debate and a few tweaks to the tax system. He has jumped on the Thomas Piketty bandwagon, appropriating the French economist’s recent book to his cause. He says that it shows how the capitalism is reverting to it natural state whereby the wealthy accumulate the lion’s share of the riches. Mr Graeber is somebody I find extremely annoying. But he says a lot of perceptive things, and he should always be taken seriously – up the point where he runs dry and turns silly.

What do I mean by capitalism? It is best seen as the marriage of two ideas: maximising the reach of open market trade, and a system of private ownership for accumulating gains from trade. Both ideas are initially appealing to liberals.

Let’s start with markets. To many, the use of free competitive markets is the ultimate form of democracy. Consumers choose freely, and the producers must adapt themselves to consumer demand. This idea has currency on the political right, who think markets should replace many functions of government, and reached into Britain’s New Labour project under Tony Blair. There is some truth to this view, but there are limits. There are two groups of arguments against the extension of open markets: those concerning economic efficiency, and those concerning human preferences.

The arguments concerning economic efficiency are rehearsed often. Efficient markets require information and trust; these can be expensive to maintain. This gives rise to the shape of the developed economy, which is dominated by large organisations that are run using command and control methods, not market exchanges, and by strong governments that are required to maintain the institutions that allow markets to flourish, and supervise the delivery of services that markets cannot provide efficiently.

We talk less about human preferences. Market exchanges are of their nature transactional; they require very little of human relationships. Once the deal is done, the parties walk away from each other. The word “arm’s length” is often used to describe the arrangement, with the suggestion that markets will not be efficient unless transactions are conducted at arms length. Such arrangements do little to satisfy many human and social needs. People choose to limit market relationships to only part of their lives. If we lend a friend a hedge-trimmer, we don’t ask for anything in return, still less establish a fair price – because that would be inimical to friendship.

So markets are constrained by the requirements of efficiency on the one hand, and our preference for cooperative, trusting relationships on the other. But, if we allow for these important constraints, free markets are a vital part a modern, liberal society.

But that is only one side of capitalism. But, as its very name suggests, capitalism is about much more than this. It is about wealth and capital. The profits from trade are retained by owners of businesses, capitalists. The capitalists then invest this wealth. To optimists this is a thoroughly benign process: new businesses are created, which help economies to expand and innovate, benefiting all society. To pessimists the wealth is simply used to maximise status and power. In Mr Graeber’s view an important dimension of this is the loaning of the wealth as a means of establishing power over the debtors – a dynamic that has a long history. Both optimists and pessimists have a point.

On the optimistic side, investment and laons in modern society do not lead to enslavement as they used to. Expanding economies provide many opportunities to pay debt back. Furthermore modern legal systems place severe constraints on the power of creditors. They used to be able to cart your children off as slaves, even after your death. They aren’t allowed to nowadays, and there are many ways, through death and bankruptcy, by which debts are extinguished to the loss of creditors. Furthermore, the instruments of ownership, shares and bonds, are mechanisms by which wealth, and power, can be distributed more widely through society. It is the basis on which the middle classes, who form the bulk of a developed society, maintain a degree of independence.

On the pessimistic side, there is a tendency for wealth to accumulate amongst an elite. And for the last generation, it seems that this elite is growing while the fortunes of the middle and lower classes stagnate – one of the central political challenges of our time. There four interrelated sets of problems that should worry liberals:

  1. The capitalist system is creating an elite who are gaining undue political influence, which is tending to perpetuate their own dominance.
  2. The amassing of wealth, only a small proportion of which is invested in new production, is slowly suffocating the economy as a whole.
  3. The poor, and even not so poor, are finding their market power is diminishing, reducing their overall power and control that they have over their lives.
  4. The relationship between the capitalists and their employees, and, all too often, their customers is often abusive and exploitative.

There are alternative ownership models to the capitalistic one: state ownership; cooperatives including customers and/or workers; non-profit enterprises with non-commercial aims. But each of these carries its own disadvantages; it is difficult to see how a healthy economy can work without a large component under capitalist ownership.

So what are my conclusions?

  • The capitalist system remains essential to a modern, liberal society. Without it life would spiral into even greater depths of poverty and exploitation.
  • The capitalist system is only a part of that that modern, liberal society and should be confined to those areas where it is efficient, and where people want it to be. It should be part of a diverse, pluralistic system.
  • There should be specific measures to counteract excessive power accumulated by capitalists, and protection for those vulnerable to exploitation.

So that set’s a general tone. It is different from the hard left, like Mr Graeber, that wants the capitalist system dismantled entirely. It also differs from the far right, that wants the capitalist system extended into further areas of society, and for the capitalists to be given more power over their employees and customers. But it covers a broad spectrum of views, from mainstream left to centre-right. Any distinctively liberal ideas are going to come from precisely how the problems of modern capitalism are addressed. That is where my future essays will go.