In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Corrupted Capitalism and the Housing Crisis,” I contend we need to add some categories to our thinking about political economy. In this case, the idea of “corporatism” helps understand a good deal of what we see in the American system today. Adding corporatism to our quiver helps us to make some more nuanced distinctions than simple “socialism” and “capitalism” allow.
Take, for instance, Mitt Romney’s contention this week while campaigning in Michigan that the bailouts of the auto companies was a feature of “crony capitalism.” A better way to understand the relationship between big business and big government today might instead be characterized as “crony corporatism.” You have a select group at the highest levels of an industry influencing government policy, which in turn favors those big businesses, provides various moral and fiscal incentives to consumers to patronize these industries, and then when necessary bails them out.
In this week’s commentary I use corporatism as a way of unpacking what happened in the recent housing crisis. For too long the American dream has revolved around home ownership. Owning a home is a good thing for many people; for many others it isn’t. What we have failed to recognize is the moral hazard that attends to government promotion of a particular vision of the American dream and the crises that result. As Dambisa Moyo characterized the housing crisis,
The direct consequence of the subsidized homeownership culture was the emergence of a society of leverage, one where citizen and country were mortgaged up to the hilt; promoting a way of life where people grew comfortable with the idea of living beyond one’s means.
The definition of the American dream offered by politicians should be far less precise, and presumably not include the level of specificity that says we should all own a home, drive a GM car, and have a college degree. As Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps put it in a 2009 interview,
I’m hoping that the administration and other thought leaders will succeed eventually in bringing the country back to the older idea that the American dream is having a career, getting a job, and getting involved in it, and doing well. That was the core of the good life. That’s what we have to get back to, and get away from this mystique that the most important thing in your life that could ever happen to you is to be a home owner.
The cultivation of an “ownership society” through government subsidy is only one feature of the creeping corporatism of contemporary America. As has been documented just in the last few days, the role of the government in directing and providing social goods has increased dramatically over recent decades. Following a New York Times story describing the increasing dependence of the American middle class on governmental initiatives of one form or another, Steve Hayward summarizes, “increasingly we’re taxing the middle class to pay themselves their own money, minus a large commission to Washington DC” (HT: The Transom). The government is increasingly using these subsidies and incentives to shape how people live their lives.
As I conclude in today’s piece, “The American people do not need politicians to tell them what happiness is and how it should be pursued. These are functions that our families, churches, and friendships fulfill.” One place to look instead would be the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to enjoy God and glorify him forever.” Another would be the words of Jesus: “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).
Director of Research Samuel Gregg’s thoughts on the debate are up at The Corner. He sees a parallel between the Italian crisis unfolding across the ocean and the problems facing the United States — particularly in Michigan, where this debate was held. The collapse of Italy would certainly be a dramatic illustration of the shortcomings of crony capitalism, and Gregg thinks a candidate could find a majority of voters who don’t want that to happen.
With the Italian-flavored shadow of the European Union’s ongoing financial implosion overhanging the United States, it was expected that America’s own fragile economic state would be front-and-center at this debate.
This time, however, there was less argument among the GOP candidates. Instead, there were far more direct critiques of (1) President Obama and (2) the pattern of crony capitalism with which more and more Americans are visibly losing patience. The debate’s setting — the state of Michigan — is a living exemplar of all the fallacies of bailouts and business-union collusion, as well as a failure to promote the type of innovation that produces wealth but that also threatens businesses (like the Detroit car companies) that don’t like competition.
Also noticeable was the increased willingness of the candidates to advocate market solutions to any number of problems, the most prominent being America’s ongoing mortgage farce, the looming crisis of student debt, and the inexorable rise in health-care costs. That’s a welcome development. If this trend keeps up, maybe one of them will make the dismantling of crony capitalism a central plank of his platform. That won’t please the likes of General Electric and the City of Chicago, but there are surely votes there.
I can always find common ground with the Distributists I meet. We want to replace the government-corporate cronyism that characterizes so much of our current economic system. And we want our culture to raise up young people with the skills, virtues and freedom to accumulate productive capital and invest it in ways that promote human flourishing for themselves and others.
But then there’s the question of centralized political power in the economy. Sometimes when Distributism is described, you get the sense that Distributism and one of its leading early proponents, Hilaire Belloc, have always been committed to a largely grass roots, bottom-up strategy of change. But Belloc himself painted a different picture in An Essay on the Restoration of Property:
We must seek political and economic reforms which shall tend to distribute property more and more widely until the owners of sufficient Means of Production (land or capital or both) are numerous enough to determine the character of society…. The effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice. (P.29)
So when I have a conversation with Distributists, the first thing I like to clear up is what they mean by Distributism. Do they merely want people and companies to model best-Distributist practices voluntarily, so as to propagate Distributist ideas and behaviors in a free marketplace of ideas? Do they just want to get the federal government out of the job of picking winners and losers in the economy? Or do they also want to vote in politicians who will arrogate to the federal government expanded powers to seize and redistribute private property and keep it more evenly distributed?
Until those questions are cleared up, the opportunities for muddle and fog are just too great to bother wading in.
Hilaire Belloc, An Essay on the Restoration of Property, (Norfolk, Virginia: IHS Press, 2002).
My commentary this week addresses the demonstrations in New York and in other cities against free enterprise and business. One of the main points I make in this piece is that “lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.” Here is the list of demands by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. It is in essence a laundry list of devastating economic schemes and handouts. Additionally, the demands are counter to America’s founding principles. The commentary is printed below:
Class Warriors for Big Government
By Ray Nothstine
Acting as unofficial scorekeeper, Sojourners Founder and CEO Jim Wallis recently declared, “There really is a class war going on, and the upper class is winning.” However, many of the class warfare protesters who are taking to the streets to “occupy” Wall Street and American cities are the disgruntled children of well-to-do parents. A quick sampling of video clips from the protests shows students from elite universities like Harvard, George Washington, and Columbia. Such protestors are driven less by genuine economic hardship than by misguided animus toward the market system that has enabled the wealth from which they have benefited.
One such protestor, Robert Stephens, launched into a tantrum about a bank seizing his well-educated parents’ $500,000 home. The claim turned out to be bogus, but he managed to convince sympathetic media outlets that he was the victim of abuse and scorn at the hand of free enterprise. Stephens, a student at the prestigious George Washington School of Law in Washington, is just one of many out-of-touch protestors pointing simplistically to the market as the culprit in the current economic downturn while ignoring other sources of financial dysfunction, such as the crony capitalism of government subsidies to business or government fiscal irresponsibility.
Struggling to make ends meet, most Americans lack the time to tune into protestors who are just as distant from their problems as Washington bureaucratic elites. Ronald Reagan offered these poignant words as he called on his own political party in the 1970s to shed its big-business country club image and to embrace the factory worker, the farmer, and the cop on the beat:
Extreme taxation, excessive controls, oppressive government competition with business, frustrated minorities and forgotten Americans are not the products of free enterprise. They are the residue of centralized bureaucracy, of government by the self-anointed elite.
Excessive taxation, regulation, and centralization of power always save their most vicious bite for the middle class. They are the hardest hit, not the super wealthy, some of whom call for higher taxes and are fawned over by a bloated government with an insatiable appetite for revenue. If there is any class conflict, it will come from the taxpaying class as it tries to tame the avarice of the political class. Most Americans are not very sympathetic to radical protestors because they still believe in an American Dream of limitless potential and opportunity.
While some protestors call for more government—or even the use of force—to restore their version of social justice and utopian economic schemes, lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.
This nation’s founders adopted a system of government emphasizing a separation of powers and federalism to protect private property and the harmony of the Republic. Protestors calling for a dismantling of these ideas, whether it is through the confiscation of another’s property or through massive, centralized power seem alien to most Americans. During his inauguration another American President, Bill Clinton, aptly declared, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
The virtues and values that have shaped our Republic offer the best for America. One of the wealthiest men of America’s founding era was John Hancock. Yet the man who once quipped, “They [the Crown] have no right to put their hands in my pocket,” was no miser. Often a political foe of the founder known for his oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence, American President John Adams nonetheless wrote, “If benevolence, charity, generosity were ever personified in North America, they were in John Hancock.” Hancock supported churches, city improvements, the arts, assisted widows, and paid for the education of orphans. However, a much greater compliment was bestowed upon him. He was widely known for treating those of modest means with the same respect as those with wealth and power.
History too shows the consequences of regimes that wished to redistribute the wealth of others and make denunciations about greed, especially wrapped within a materialistic, secular worldview. That was class warfare, too, and it ended in blood and wretched poverty.
In an article appearing in the American Spectator, Samuel Gregg discusses the growth of religion in China, its system of crony capitalism, and its need to accept freedom. Opening the column, Gregg describes how the Catholic Church’s freedom from state control in China is at stake. Gregg later explains that there isn’t just corruption in China’s crony system of capitalism, but also in its society:
It’s abundantly clear, for instance, that China’s economy is hardly the capitalism envisaged by Adam Smith. Instead, it’s a crony-capitalist arrangement. One symptom of this is the extensive corruption prevailing throughout Chinese society.
In 2010, Transparency International ranked China as 78th out of 179 countries on its Corruption Perceptions Index. That made China only slightly less-corrupt than Russia! Moreover, as Yashen Huang illustrates in Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics (2008), apparatchiks from China’s Communist party, government, and military exercise far-reaching control over thousands of the businesses powering China’s development in the special economic zones. That’s a recipe for a growing culture of accelerating bribes, nepotism, and fraud.
Wiser heads in China, however, know crony capitalism isn’t infinitely sustainable. In the long-term, China needs the rule of law and a stable system of property rights — all of which implies limiting the capacity of those with political power to act arbitrarily.
But while rule of law and property rights are essential for sustainable economic growth, they are not enough. Equally important is a generally accepted moral culture that most people have internalized and generally follow.
The moral culture in China has been dismantled by the government. Gregg argues the rule of law and property rights are not enough for economic growth, China also needs a moral law. After the decimation of Confucianism, which provided the moral glue for the Chinese society, many are now turning to religion:
And religion is plainly on the rise in China. Five years ago, the English language version of the Communist Party’s newspaper, China Daily, reported on the results of studies done by Shanghai University professors which indicated that millions of Chinese — especially the young and particularly in the special economic zones — were becoming Christian.
This shouldn’t be too surprising. It is materialism that leads to atheism, not the growth of wealth per se. Economic liberty requires and encourages people to think and choose freely. But such thoughts can’t be quarantined to commercial considerations. With increasing wealth, many Chinese now have the time and resources to explore life’s more important questions. Many have found answers in Christianity.
Such developments, according to some Chinese officials, aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Back in 2006, the then-head of China’s religious affairs ministry, Ye Xiaowen, begrudgingly acknowledged the various Christian churches’ contributions to helping Chinese society cope with the effects of increasing wealth.
While China will benefit from a strong moral presence within its borders, which will aid in solving its corruption problems, Gregg foresees the Catholic Church and the Chinese government being at odds when the government questions doctrines or bishop appointments. There is a way out for China, as Gregg concludes, and that is by accepting freedom:
The way out, of course, is for China’s rulers to accept freedom’s indivisible character. Once you concede religious or economic liberty, it’s hard to quarantine its effects. Acknowledging this, however, would require China’s Communist Party to self-terminate its grip on political power. Regrettably, as history illustrates, Communists never do that — or at least not until it’s truly inevitable.
To read the full article click here.
In a new essay for Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg explains why we shouldn’t only focus on public sector unions as examples of organizations that seek government power and taxpayer dollars to advance their ends. “A considerable portion of the business community is equally culpable,” Gregg writes. Excerpt:
The attractions of business-government collusion are enhanced when the state’s involvement in the economy grows. This is partly a question of incentives. The larger the scope of government economic intervention, the more businesses are incentivized to cultivate politicians in much the same way that public sector unions have.
As a result, consumers become displaced as the focus of business activity. Nor do the incentives for people of an entrepreneurial bent lie with creating something that the entrepreneur thinks consumers will value.
Instead the incentives become increasingly aligned with successful political entrepreneurship. Competition becomes less about a company’s ability to offer new and better products for consumers at lower prices. Instead, it become a struggle among businesses to secure state subsidies, to lobby legislators to establish tariffs that stack the deck against foreign competition, or to persuade governments to provide one company with exemptions from regulations that apply to every other company in the same industry.
It’s a form of soft corruption that produces higher prices for consumers, undermines value creation in the marketplace, and facilitates unwholesome relationships between politicians and businesses. It also represents the gradual subversion of the market economy by mercantilist arrangements. Smith identified the core of the problem in his Wealth of Nations (1776): “in the mercantile system, the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer; and it seems to consider production, and not consumption, as the ultimate end and object of all industry and consumption.”
In the end, however, everyone loses.
Read Samuel Gregg’s “Business vs. the Market” on the Public Discourse website.
It turns out there’s a phrase for the reality of ‘crony capitalism’ in Hebrew: hon v’shilton, which is “literally translated as capital and government, an expression Israelis use to describe the rich’s influence on government.” Check out Bloomberg Businessweek for an overview of current controversy on Israel’s “business elite.”
Of course business need not corrupt government. But the temptation for those with a concentration of economic power to turn that into political advantage in order to retain economic dominance is perennial. In a 2008 interview with venture capitalist Ronny Douek, who founded the Israel Center for Civil Society, Jerusalem Post interviewer Ruthie Blum Leibowitz asked Douek about hon v’shilton:
Doesn’t the connection between business and politics – what we call “hon v’shilton” – have negative connotations?
Yes, unless it is defined as taking mutual responsibility for society. With the right balance, it can only be a good connection. Take, for example, people here who saw ways in which they could have an influence on road safety or education…
Douek’s answer refers to his pluriform view of social life, in which he likens Israel “to a table resting on three legs – the government, civil society and business.”
As an aside, one instance of the ancient Hebrew root for the modern term shilton appears in Ecclesiastes 8:4 as supreme: “Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’”