A new progressive political economy
Publish Date: Mar 10, 2014
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By David Sainsbury

In an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Future of History,” Francis Fukuyama pointed out that, despite widespread anger at Wall Street bailouts, there has been no great upsurge of support for left-wing political parties. Fukuyama attributed this – rightly, I believe – to a failure of ideas.

The 2008 financial crash revealed major flaws in the neoliberal view of capitalism, and an objective view of the last 35 years shows that the neoliberal model has not performed well relative to the previous 30 years in terms of economic growth, financial stability, and social justice. But a credible progressive alternative has yet to take shape.

What should be the main outlines of such an alternative? First, a progressive political economy must be based on a firm belief in capitalism – that is, on an economic system in which most of the assets are privately owned, and markets largely guide production and distribute income.

But it must also incorporate three defining progressive beliefs: the crucial role of institutions; the need for state involvement in their design in order to resolve conflicting interests and provide public goods; and social justice, defined as fairness, as an important measure of a country’s economic performance.

It was a great mistake of neoclassical economists not to see that capitalism is a socioeconomic system, and that institutions are an essential part of it. The recent financial crisis was made far worse by profound institutional failures, such as the high level of leverage that banks were permitted to have.

Empirical research has shown that four sets of institutions have a major impact on the performance of firms and, therefore, on a country’s economic growth.

These include the institutions underpinning its financial and labor markets, its corporate-governance arrangements, its education and training system, and its national system of innovation (the network of public and private institutions that initiate and diffuse new technologies).

The second defining belief of progressive thinking is that institutions do not evolve spontaneously, as neoliberals believe. The state must be involved in their design and reform. In the case of institutions underpinning labor and financial markets, as well as corporate governance, the state must mediate conflicting interests.

Likewise, a country’s education and training system and its national system of innovation are largely public goods, which have to be provided by the state.

It should be clear that the role for the state that I have been describing is an enabling or market-supporting one. It is not the command-and-control role promoted by traditional socialists or the minimalist role beloved by neoliberals.

The third defining belief of progressive thinking rejects the neoliberal view that a country’s economic performance should be assessed solely in terms of GDP growth and freedom. If one is concerned with a society’s wellbeing, it is not possible to argue that a rich country in which the top 1% hold most of the wealth is performing better than a slightly less wealthy country in which prosperity is more widely shared.

Moreover, fairness is a better measure of social justice than equality. This is because it is difficult to devise practical and effective policies to achieve equality in a market economy. Moreover, there is a real tradeoff between equality and economic growth, and egalitarianism is not a popular policy even for many low-income people. In my experience, trade unions are much more interested in wage differentials than in a simple policy of equal pay for all.

These are the core principles that I believe a new progressive political economy should embrace. I also believe that Western countries that do not adopt this framework, and instead cling to a neoliberal political economy, will find it increasingly difficult to innovate and grow.

In the new global economy, which is awash with cheap labor, Western economies will not be able to compete in a “race to the bottom,” with firms seeking ever-cheaper labor, land, and capital, and governments seeking to attract them by deregulating and shrinking social benefits.

The only way Western economies will be able to compete and improve their standard of living is by seeing themselves as being involved in a race to the top. That is, firms must improve their value added through innovation in existing industries, and by developing the capability to compete in new and more sophisticated industries, where value added is generally higher.

Companies will be able to do this only if governments abandon the belief that they have no role to play in the economy. In fact, the state has a key role to play in providing the conditions that enable dynamic companies to innovate and grow.

David Sainsbury, a member of the British House of Lords and Minister of Science and Innovation from 1998 to 2006, is the author of Progressive Capitalism – How to Achieve Economic Growth, Liberty and Social Justice.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2014.


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