Conflict between the market and society

“[Karl Polanyi] identified a tension between what he considered to be the two organising principles of modern market society: “economic liberalism” and “social interventionism”, each with their own objectives and policies as well as support from the groups within society whose interests they are seen to serve. The aim of economic liberalism is to establish or restore the self-regulation of the system by eliminating interventionist policies that obstruct the freedom of markets for land, labour and capital. Through laissez-faire and free trade, social relationships are embedded within the economic system and subjected to unregulated market forces with support from the propertied classes, finance and industry. By contrast, the aim of social interventionism is to embed the economy within social relationships, thereby safeguarding human beings and nature through market regulation, with support from those adversely affected by the destabilising consequences of economic liberalisation and the self-regulating market – notably the working classes.

Polanyi argued that there is a conflict between the interest of capital in freeing itself from the constraints of society – and society’s interest in protecting itself from the social dislocation of the market (particularly that of finance). This generates a “double-movement” of counter-reactions by both capital and society, mediated by politics and the legal process. Without compensating social intervention, Polanyi contended that the pressure on vulnerable individuals and groups within society, arising from attempts at market self-regulation, would generate resistance in the form of labour, civic, social and political movements. If these become widespread – and discontent with the damaging effects of the self-regulating market intensifies – social order becomes more difficult to maintain; and in an effort to safeguard the existing system, political leaders may attempt to deflect dissatisfaction by scapegoating. However, at some point, the state is likely to be put in the position of having to decide whether to intervene on behalf of those affected or to risk social breakdown. In turn, the impairment of market forces associated with protective regulatory measures could set into motion a counter-movement on the part of capital to attempt to protect its own interests by freeing itself from social and political constraints. In response, the state would have to decide the degree to which laissez-faire should be restored and social protections and market regulations relaxed.”

Suzanne J. Konzelmann, Simon Deakin, Marc Fovargue-Davies and Frank Wilkinson (2018), Labour, Finance and Inequality, p.5-6


Robert Reich: the dangerous myth of deregulation

The engaging Robert Reich on how Trump’s policy of deregulation is simply another form of ‘trickle-down economics’, which will benefit those at the top while placing more risk on the rest of society.

Equality and growth – no conflict?

“To lay a factual foundation to the argument for raising the American income floor, we need to sweep away the remnants of an older view that policies cannot promote both equality and growth. The older view assumed an “efficiency-equity trade-off.” If such were true, then nothing could be done to foster economic growth without the collateral damage of greater inequality, or greater equality without the collateral damage of less growth.

History does not confirm such a trade-off. To remember why, first consider a simple point about the political process…A dominant historical outcome has been that vested interests have blocked initiatives that would promote growth and/or equality. A conspicuous example is the suppression of mass public schooling – an investment that clearly promotes both equality and growth. Our second consideration comes from the numbers: history does not record any correlation – negative or positive – between income equalization and economic growth, either in our new American history over the past 360 years or world history over the past 150 years. The correlation does not emerge, regardless of whether “growth” means the GDP per capita growth rate or its absolute level, and regardless of whether “equalization” means the share of social spending in GDP, some measure of policy-induced redistribution, the level of pre-fisc income inequality before taxes and transfers, or even the rate of change in any of these.

Economists have explored the effects on income per capita growth of three kinds of egalitarian variables: tax-based social spending and its composition; fiscal redistribution, measured by the gap between pre- and post-fisc inequality; and the greater equality of pre-fisc incomes before taxes and transfers. An empirical literature using contemporary world evidence finds that the growth effect of equalizing incomes is not significant. History agrees. American experience does not reveal any clear effect on GDP of greater tax-based social spending or more progressive redistribution from rich to poor. Indeed, recent analyses suggest that greater pre-fisc equality has a positive effect on growth. This result supports the argument that egalitarian investments in human capital simultaneously achieve more equality and more growth. While these statistical results can be and have been debated, they do not support any claim that equalizing incomes must lower growth. American income history offers no support either.

If there were any fulcrum at which historical insight might be applied to move inequality, it would be political…no nation has used up all its political opportunities for leveling income without harming economic growth. Improving education, taxing large inheritances, and taming financial instability with regulatory vigilance – the opportunities are there, like hundred dollar bills lying on the sidewalk. Of course, the fact that they are still lying there testifies to the political difficulty of bending over to pick them up.”

Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson (2016), Unequal Gains – American Growth and Inequality since 1700, Princeton University Press, p.261-2.

There are influential theoretical arguments in economics supporting policies which promote growth by, on the one hand, increasing and, on the other, reducing inequality. The above conclusion to Lindert and Williamson’s comprehensive historical study of American growth and inequality is either ambivalent to or in support of a positive relationship between reduced inequality, certainly at its current level in many countries, and faster growth.

Their argument is that the forces generating inequality are largely exogenous (they come from outside the economic system), and so can be altered through policy without harming growth.

Clearly there are limits to this. Perfect equality of incomes and wealth would destroy the incentives required for economic activity. Ever-increasing inequality could also lead to the sort of social division and political instability which would be destructive of the status quo. Neither extreme is sustainable.

From a macroeconomic perspective, greater inequality can promote or reduce growth, depending on the economic context. If productive investment is constrained by a lack of savings, redistributing income and wealth to those economic agents who tend to save a larger share of their income, such as the wealthier members of society or firms, would provide the resources for that investment by increasing the economy’s savings rate. In this situation, greater inequality can boost growth.

This is an argument often associated with Marxist thinking and the central notion of the rate of profit or surplus in providing the resources and motivation for new investment. Growth is “profit-led”.

By contrast, if productive investment is constrained by a lack of consumption spending, then redistribution to those who consume a larger share of their income, normally the poorer members of society, will boost consumption and stimulate investment. In this case, reducing inequality can boost growth, while policies which increase it will lower growth.

This latter argument finds support in Keynesian and post-Keynesian thinking, so that spending for consumption helps drive investment spending. Growth is held back by “under-consumption” and is “wage-led”. If this is the case, then a strong argument can be made for win-win progressive policies which boost household incomes and wages and reduce inequality while raising growth.

Inequality shapes and is shaped by both economic and political forces. There is perhaps “plenty to play for” in terms of policies which promote greater social justice under capitalism, without undermining its foundations. In today’s climate, they are surely essential to sustaining those foundations.

The ‘gaping hole’ in the Marxist argument

I do have time for Marx and Marxist thought, its interdisciplinarity, its breadth and depth of vision and its desire to uncover the workings of capitalism. However it remains flawed, and the historical record of state socialism, where attempts have been made to put it into practice, have resulted in a great deal of oppression and suffering.

That is not to say that all is well with capitalism, and we certainly should not avoid addressing arguments for both its radical reform, and the prospect of its evolution into something else.

Here is institutionalist economist Geoffrey Hodgson, who blogs here, from his recent, excellent, book Wrong Turnings – How the Left Got Lost (p.100):

“The dominant Marxist historical picture of rising and falling social classes meant that socialists did not have to think about how their proposed future would work. This was part of its appeal. It pointed to the growth of the proletariat and proclaimed it as the agent of socialist revolution. The tricky problem of explaining in messy detail how socialism could work in complex, large-scale societies could be postponed and addressed later when the working class has ’emancipated itself’. It was part of its historic destiny, and who could argue with destiny?

This left a gaping hole in the Marxist argument. Theoretical debates over the feasibility of socialism have shown convincingly that such as system – where most private property and trade are abolished – would face huge problems and it would slide towards totalitarianism. Twentieth-century experiences have amply confirmed these arguments.

With its wholesale abolition of non-state property and markets, Marxism blocked the road towards an alternative collectivist system involving worker cooperatives trading on markets. Marxism not only failed; it also ruled out more viable alternatives to capitalism.”

Ha-Joon Chang: taxation is not theft

In a modern capitalist economy, taxation is not theft but a necessary source of funding for all sorts of public goods and services that make the economy and society function well. It also shapes behavioural incentives in ways that can further promote social welfare. This is worth reiterating. Many of us may not like paying taxes. Some public spending may be wasted, and it often benefits particular groups at the expense of others, although this is inherent to politics. But it remains an essential element of the good society.

Inequality in the OECD: causes and policy responses

Inequality has become a ‘big’ topic in recent years, of concern both to economists and the public at large. This is exemplified by the popularity of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and many other works. I have written on some of these studies here.

They continue to be churned out: in the July issue of the heterodox Cambridge Journal of Economics, Pasquale Tridico of Roma Tre University analyses the determinants of income inequality in 25 OECD countries between 1990 and 2013. He finds that ‘financialisation’, increased labour market flexibility, the declining influence of trade unions and welfare state retrenchment have been key to its rise.

When other factors such as economic growth, technological change, globalization and unemployment are taken into account, the above four causes remain important, and, to the extent that they can be changed as a matter of policy, they can mitigate inequality without harming economic growth. They are therefore not the full story but, for example, the negative effects of rising unemployment on inequality can be reduced if there is a strong social safety net in place. Continue reading

The need for the mixed economy

“The mixed economy is a social institution, a human solution to human problems. Private capitalism and public coercion each predated modern prosperity. Governments were involved in the market long before the mixed economy. What made the difference was the marriage of large-scale profit-seeking activity, active democratic governance, and a deepened understanding of how markets work (and where they work poorly). As in any marriage, the exact terms of the relationship changed over time. In an evolving world, social institutions need to adapt if they are to continue to serve their basic functions. Money, for example, is still doing what it has always done: provide a common metric, store value, facilitate exchange. But it’s now paper or plastic rather than metal, and more likely to pass from computer to computer than hand to hand. Similarly, the mixed economy is defined not by the specific forms it has taken but by the specific functions it has served: to overcome the failures of the market and to translate economic growth into broad advances in human well-being – from better health and education to greater knowledge and opportunity.”

Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (2016), American Amnesia: How the War on Government led us to Forget What Made America Prosper, p.7