If you ask a staunch capitalist about the global economic meltdown and the state of the system that brought us to this point they say “that isn’t really capitalism.” This sounds a lot like the socialists they’ve always criticized who defend their ideology by saying that the Soviet Union and China aren’t REALLY communist.
In the afterword of the copy of Anthem I read years ago, Ayn Rand wrote that if collectivists were successful in the political agenda, we would end up with a world much like Rand described in Anthem and the well-meaning commies behind it all would stand up and say “But this isn’t what we MEANT.”
Today, it is the those free market ideologues who are left to say “this isn’t what we MEANT.”
The current global economic crisis should lay rest to the notion that markets or the invisible hand or whatever can produce the “least bad,” let alone “optimal,” economic results. None the less, there are still those who would try to blame government intervention, rather than market failure, for the situation. In January, Reason Magazine ran a few articles on the subject, notably:
Is deregulation to blame? by Katherine Mangu-Ward
Anatomy of a Breakdown by Michael Flynn
This is a great pair of articles – they provide a clear, easy to understand insight into what went wrong. But they fail to make the case the authors are trying to make: that not only is deregulation not to blame, but that government policy is to blame.
Weirdly, Katherine Mangu-Ward finds case by case that the arguments that deregulation are to blame are in fact correct (with the exception of blaming the Glass-Steagall Act), and then concludes the exact opposite. She admits the The Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, a loosening of debt rules in 2004, and the lack of oversight of Fannie and Freddie caused the meltdown. Her essential argument, however, is that the debt rule change and the lack of oversight of Fannie and Freddie are not technically deregulation but misregulation. This semantic argument does nothing to support the idea that banks (and by extension “the market”) can self-regulate. In fact, Mangu-Ward’s examination of the facts should lead to the exact opposite conclusion: left to their own devices, banks make stupid, stupid mistakes like taking on too much debt and trading in crazy derivatives.
Michael Flynn meanwhile makes the case that the government’s home ownership evangelism is to blame for the crisis. He says that the poor banks were bullied by the government into making bad loans, but all that would have been fine if not for the ripple effects caused by Fannie and Freddie’s stupid moves. And the fact that Fannie and Freddie were allowed to go hog wild? That wasn’t “deregulation” since they were government agencies (semantics again). Which is all more or less correct, but doesn’t address a few small problems: none of this proves that there wasn’t a market failure.
No one had to take out subprime loans. They could have read the fine print and then walked away. Banks could have found other ways of dealing with subprimes loans, recognizing the problems with Fannie and Freddie. Nothing suggests to me that Fannie and Freddie would have acted differently had they been private banks (except that they would have been more regulated as private banks). In other words: the government may have started the problem in motion. They definitely failed to stop the problem when they could have, and they seem to have made it worse. But they never did did anything that the market could not have stopped had the industry been “self-regulating.”
The two Reason articles are good, but they miss a big piece of the puzzle: the preemptive squashing of derivatives regulation in the 90s. In this case it is again not “deregulation” that was the problem – it was the lack of existence of regulation in first place. We were warned by congress, in no uncertain terms, what would happen back in 1994 but concerns were shouted down by anti-regulation ideologues in government, the industry, and the press. We were warned again in 2003 by Warren Buffet and still took no action.
None of this bodes particularly well for the government’s ability to regulate markets. But the idea that the financial industry can regulate itself has proven completely wrong, and no amount of spin and semantic games can change that. Unregulated free market capitalism has failed as socialism (or as some call it, “state capitalism”) is looking stronger than ever.
Meanwhile, the idea that economic freedom brings with it individual freedom has also been discredited by the persistent human rights abuses in Singapore (one of the most “economically free” places in the world) compared to the more economically regulated nation of Norway. You can’t make a convincing argument that strong civil liberties make for a strong economy, nor that economic liberty will necessarily result in civil liberty.
The battle between market economics and total state control (as played out between the US and the USSR) was only the beginning of a much longer struggle between many different economic policies that are neither strictly capitalist nor strictly socialist.
Those who still believe, as I do, in the virtue of open societies can no longer rely on practical arguments against the sort of extreme market regulation and lack of civil liberties found in countries like China. China’s technocracy has been too successful and the US’s dependence on markets too disastrous. We now must ask harder questions such as “what specific regulations make sense?”