Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A Different Capitalism

I just about had it with politicians of all stripes (and I mean all stripes) wittering on about how all we need is some new kind of capitalism: "caring", "moral", "responsible". And how, on those occasions when blame is actually being doled out to neo-liberal capitalism, all of the problems are somehow down to the "casino" or "crony" varieties.

The implication, usually unstated but sometimes overt, is that with the right degree of moral fibre, capitalism can right itself and sail us all into a bright future. Even now after all that's happened in the world, the suggestion that it might perhaps need regulation, or some other form of oversight, is quickly dismissed, even by those politicians ostensibly in favour of "big government" (or painted as such).

Which, isn't perhaps entirely unrealistic given that it wasn't just a failure of the markets that got us to where we are today, but a wider failure of mechanisms that were in place - or were believed to be in place - to protect us. So it doesn't seem unreasonable to baulk before installing new control mechanisms, since the last set comprehensively failed to do what they were supposed to.

Arguably - and, boy, has it been argued by those at the lunatic end of the neo-liberal spectrum - the very intervention of government regulation in the markets makes them unstable by disrupting "natural" checks and balances that should otherwise allow plain sailing with nary a hand on the economic tiller. Wide-eyed, they baldly harangue that if only the markets had been left alone, none of this would have happened.

This line is superficially seductive, since it appeals to the idea of corporations being prudent - and therefore self-correcting - when there's no-one waiting to bail them out. But the necessary drive for constant (cancerous) growth constantly shoals vision to immediate, short-term gain at the expense of longer-term wisdom. And the propensity for businesses to conglomerate towards monopolies acts to destroy competition. Leaving businesses entirely to their own devices is simply not plausible.

More importantly - "caring", "moral", "responsible" - these are terms that don't even faintly match either the reality of business, or traits that are likely to prove successful in business. Businesses that adopt these will simply lose out to those businesses that don't. People can high-mindedly argue that the moral consumer will choose better behaved businesses, but the importance of the bottom line, especially in our currently stretched times, is difficult to overstate. How much more would you pay for the same service from a (more) moral corporation?

All of which is a round-about way of getting back to where I originally intended to come in here. Namely, businesses need regulation, if not to keep them in line then to keep their less scrupulous rivals in check. Obviously, such regulation needs careful tuning to avoid becoming needlessly onerous, and it should perpetually be open to revision, but its absence, or its trimming back, doesn't come cost-free.

The idea that it can be any other way, that we can rely on business having a moral sense that is aligned with our personal moral compasses, is flatly ridiculous. But this is the vision currently being articulated by the leaderships of our three main parties. Sure, they have their differences, but they're just subtle variants of the same message: business knows best. And while business does know best in many aspects of its operation, we should not be lulled into thinking that, if we really do wish morality and justice to be the outcome of its actions, that business can provide us with the solution.

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