Thursday, 12 March 2009

Capitalism beyond the crisis

In the New York Review of Books Amartya Sen has an essay on Capitalism Beyond the Crisis. Sen opens his essay by saying
The question that arises most forcefully now concerns the nature of capitalism and whether it needs to be changed. Some defenders of unfettered capitalism who resist change are convinced that capitalism is being blamed too much for short-term economic problems—problems they variously attribute to bad governance (for example by the Bush administration) and the bad behavior of some individuals (or what John McCain described during the presidential campaign as "the greed of Wall Street"). Others do, however, see truly serious defects in the existing economic arrangements and want to reform them, looking for an alternative approach that is increasingly being called "new capitalism."
and ends it by saying
The present economic crises do not, I would argue, call for a "new capitalism," but they do demand a new understanding of older ideas, such as those of Smith and, nearer our time, of Pigou, many of which have been sadly neglected. What is also needed is a clearheaded perception of how different institutions actually work, and of how a variety of organizations—from the market to the institutions of the state—can go beyond short-term solutions and contribute to producing a more decent economic world.
With much of interest in between.

Over a his blog, Aid Watch, William Easterly disagrees with Sen. Easterly blogs on Amartya Sen on Moralism, Maoism, and Capitalism. Easterly writes
He [Sen] points out that even Mr. Free Market Invisible Hand, Adam Smith, was aware that you need more than self-interest to make capitalism work. You also need moral values like trust, honesty, and prudence (none of which has been too obvious in the financial sector lately), so business people can do transactions without cheating each other. His story is that free market proponents forgot all that in the run-up to the current crisis. If this is true, free market proponents are amazingly lazy, not bothering to read the zillion articles by economists on precisely these values in the last 15 years. The interesting question is where do these values come from? As this recent research shows, they COULD still arise even in a world of pure self-interest, since self-interested individuals could rationally find ways to bind themselves to norms of good behavior so that they can do repeated transactions with each other (probably helped along by pre-existing norms based on culture or human evolution -- see previous post on values). A norm of trust can sustain a free market driven by the profit motive (usually supplemented by formal institutions). And why do the values sometimes break down? Unfortunately, a norm of distrust is also another possible equilibrium, in which you expect everyone else to be untrustworthy and so you are untrustworthy too. A bunch of cheaters could catch everyone by surprise, destroy trust, and we jump to the bad equilibrium. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the current crisis, but I suspect this type of analysis, as practiced by tons of recent research on values and norms, is more useful than moral sermonizing to those (probably nonexistent) economists who didn’t know you need trust as well as the profit motive.

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