Markets vs. Voters?


Athens, February 2010

From New Left Review:

Suspicions that capitalism and democracy may not sit easily together are far from new. From the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the bourgeoisie and the political Right expressed fears that majority rule, inevitably implying the rule of the poor over the rich, would ultimately do away with private property and free markets. The rising working class and the political Left, for their part, warned that capitalists might ally themselves with the forces of reaction to abolish democracy, in order to protect themselves from being governed by a permanent majority dedicated to economic and social redistribution. I will not discuss the relative merits of the two positions, although history suggests that, at least in the industrialized world, the Left had more reason to fear the Right overthrowing democracy, in order to save capitalism, than the Right had to fear the Left abolishing capitalism for the sake of democracy. However that may be, in the years immediately after the Second World War there was a widely shared assumption that for capitalism to be compatible with democracy, it would have to be subjected to extensive political control—for example, nationalization of key firms and sectors, or workers’ ‘co-determination’, as in Germany—in order to protect democracy itself from being restrained in the name of free markets. While Keynes and, to some extent, Kalecki and Polanyi carried the day, Hayek withdrew into temporary exile.

Since then, however, mainstream economics has become obsessed with the ‘irresponsibility’ of opportunistic politicians who cater to an economically uneducated electorate by interfering with otherwise efficient markets, in pursuit of objectives—such as full employment and social justice—that truly free markets would in the long run deliver anyway, but must fail to deliver when distorted by politics. Economic crises, according to standard theories of ‘public choice’, essentially stem from market-distorting political interventions for social objectives. In this view, the right kind of intervention sets markets free from political interference; the wrong, market-distorting kind derives from an excess of democracy; more precisely, from democracy being carried over by irresponsible politicians into the economy, where it has no business. Not many today would go as far as Hayek, who in his later years advocated abolishing democracy as we know it in defence of economic freedom and civil liberty. Still, the cantus firmus of current neo-institutionalist economic theory is thoroughly Hayekian. To work properly, capitalism requires a rule-bound economic policy, with protection of markets and property rights constitutionally enshrined against discretionary political interference; independent regulatory authorities; central banks, firmly protected from electoral pressures; and international institutions, such as the European Commission or the European Court of Justice, that do not have to worry about popular re-election. Such theories studiously avoid the crucial question of how to get there from here, however; very likely because they have no answer, or at least none that can be made public.

There are various ways to conceptualize the underlying causes of the friction between capitalism and democracy. For present purposes, I will characterize democratic capitalism as a political economy ruled by two conflicting principles, or regimes, of resource allocation: one operating according to marginal productivity, or what is revealed as merit by a ‘free play of market forces’, and the other based on social need or entitlement, as certified by the collective choices of democratic politics. Under democratic capitalism, governments are theoretically required to honour both principles simultaneously, although substantively the two almost never align. In practice they may for a time neglect one in favour of the other, until they are punished by the consequences: governments that fail to attend to democratic claims for protection and redistribution risk losing their majority, while those that disregard the claims for compensation from the owners of productive resources, as expressed in the language of marginal productivity, cause economic dysfunctions that will become increasingly unsustainable and thereby also undermine political support.

In the liberal utopia of standard economic theory, the tension in democratic capitalism between its two principles of allocation is overcome by turning the theory into what Marx would have called a material force. In this view, economics as ‘scientific knowledge’ teaches citizens and politicians that true justice is market justice, under which everybody is rewarded according to their contribution, rather than their needs redefined as rights. To the extent that economic theory became accepted as a social theory, it would ‘come true’ in the sense of being performative—thus revealing its essentially rhetorical nature as an instrument of social construction by persuasion. In the real world, however, it did not prove so easy to talk people out of their ‘irrational’ beliefs in social and political rights, as distinct from the law of the market and the right of property.

“The Crises of Democratic Capitalism”, Wolfgang Streeck, New Left Review