I spent last week in London attending a couple of stimulating conferences at the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) and the Transformational Business Network (TBN), and catching up with some friends and acquaintances. All of the discussions were either officially off-the-record or of a personal nature, so I can’t be too specific about who said what but my general impression, obvious to anyone who’s visited, is that London remains an extremely vibrant, forward-looking, prosperous global capital in stark contrast to much of Europe and even other parts of Britain. But the reasons why are varied and may upset some seemingly-settled orthodoxies about religion and wealth.
London’s wealth is certainly tied to the City and international finance, even if giants such as the Royal Bank of Scotland are posting record losses (£9 billion in 2013). There’s much distress about such losses, especially subsequent to the massive bailouts RBS and other banks received in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. We often forget that making bad investments and taking losses is part of the normal, necessary functioning of the market economy; Milton Friedman went so far to say that losses are even more important the profits. Wealth can’t be created if we don’t allow losses to get rid of badly-managed or mistaken enterprises.
No one wants to fail, of course, but without failure, we can’t have success, even at the individual level. I’m reminded of a Teddy Roosevelt image we used to have at the office of my college newspaper emblazoned with the words, “The only man who never makes mistakes is the one who never does anything.” Certainly true, even if the vice of sloth and complacency often tells us otherwise; what’s more important is to learn from one’s mistakes and try again.
Critics of capitalism have often cited the constant striving and relentless competition as negative aspects; what’s the point of hard work, after all, if we can never enjoy its fruits? The austerity and disciple required by the market are sometime called “Protestant” because they supposedly imply a pessimistic, individualistic view of human nature, as opposed to Catholicism’s more positive, “relaxed,” social view. Made famous by the German sociologist Max Weber, this thesis has always seemed to contain some elements of truth but never completely accurate to me, and my time in London confirmed my doubts. (more…)