In defence of capitali$m

[This article was written for BMS World Mission and can be found here.]

I want an end to poverty. I want a social system which operates justly in the general interest without boom and bust. I want to force even the most selfish into the service of others. I want to bring good news to the poor.

We do not live in the Garden of Eden. Scarcity is a fundamental fact. I see a world in which I cannot survive alone. In so far as we enjoy abundance, it is because we share the work of providing for one another.

That sharing of work implies a serious problem: how shall we decide how much of what to produce?

There is a choice: either voluntary ownership, control and risk bearing in the means of production, or collective ownership through the state plus economic planning. We must choose between capitalism or socialism.

Capitalism allocates effort and resources through the price system plus profit and loss accounting. When prices are formed through voluntary exchange of the goods and services people want, a profit shows that value is being created for customers, in their opinion. A loss indicates the collective opinion of society that value is being destroyed.

Only the price system reveals the shifting preferences in the minds of billions of individuals. That is why economic planning by authority always fails. It is why actual socialist societies are highly authoritarian: ever more power is applied in a futile attempt to make planning work.

"only the price system reveals the shifting preferences of billions"

Understanding our present plight requires insight into the financial system.

Banks lend money into existence. They do not merely lend what people have saved. When a loan is made, bank deposits are created out of nothing. That’s why the UK money supply tripled between 1997 and 2010 from about £700 billion to just over £2.2 trillion.

A society simply cannot triple its money supply in 13 years without profound consequences. Understand that new money went first into the financial system and housing, London and the South East and you have a good explanation for the structural problems in our economy.

We had a chronic oversupply of credit, then sudden undersupply. It is a typical failure of economic planning by authority, a failure of central banking.

The “greedy bankers” argument is inadequate. Thanks to various state-provided guarantees, bankers were gambling with other people’s money, at other people’s risk. Of course they frequently succumbed to temptation. Then governments forced us to bail them out. The injustice of it is palpable.

Look at the cost of energy, the queues on our roads or land use decisions and the story is the same: comprehensive regulation failing to produce the right results. Yes, there is often private investment but it is protected by legal privileges. Even without considering the high level of state spending, it is impossible to sustain the argument that our economy has been too free.

We have preached capitalism but practiced socialism before blaming inevitable failure on the market.

The Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto asked why people in the developing world do not prosper despite being clever, industrious and willing to take risks. Marx believed the problem is that the poor have formal rights but no property.

De Soto demonstrated the opposite. The poorest of the poor in the developing world possess $9.3 trillion worth of land, roughly the size of US GDP and over 70 times the entire world’s foreign aid budget. It turns out the poor in developing countries possess real property but inadequate rights. Co-operation cannot work for the common good without strong property rights and contractual exchange.

We have lived through a deep crisis of the Third Way. How we respond to it is crucial. Is justice and sustained, inclusive prosperity to be delivered through a return to comprehensive economic planning by authority or should we try freedom?

The only system capable of co-ordinating the shared work of providing for one another in this world of scarcity is founded on property rights, voluntary exchange, prices, profit and loss. It is the only system capable of bending even the most selfish to the service of others. Governments must stop deranging it if we are to bring good news to the poor through voluntary co-operation in free markets.