阿玛蒂亚·森:危机之后的资本主义

陈斯一 译

Amartya Sen2008年是充满危机的一年。首先,我们遭遇了食物危机,这对贫困的消费群体造成了显著的威胁,特别是对非洲的贫困人群。随之而来的是一次创纪录的油价增涨,威胁到了所有的石油进口国。最后,还有在秋季突如其来、而现在正以惊人的速度加剧着的全球性经济低迷。这场经济低迷有可能在2009年急剧恶化,而且很多经济学家预测将会发生一场全面的经济萧条,其规模甚至可能达到1930年经济大萧条的程度。当物质财富遭遇剧烈衰减的时候,那些本来已经处境艰难的人们将受害最深。

现在出现的最激烈的问题是:资本主义的本质是什么?它是否需要变革?一些支持无约束的资本主义(unfettered capitalism)、拒绝变革的人们相信,将短期经济问题归咎于资本主义,是一种过分的谴责。他们认为这些问题是不良的政府管理(比如布什政府的不良管理)和不良的个人行为(或者约翰·麦凯恩在总统竞选中说的“华尔街的贪婪”)导致的。然而,另外一些人却看到了现行经济安排中的真正严重的缺陷,并想要进行改革,他们正在寻找一种被越来越多的人称为“新资本主义”的替代方案。

在1月于巴黎举行的一场名为“新世界,新资本主义”的论坛上,新、旧资本主义的观念扮演了活跃的角色。主持会议的法国总统尼古拉斯·萨科奇(Nicolas Sarkozy)和英国前首相托尼·布莱尔(Tony Blair)进行了具有说服力的发言,指出变革的必要性。同样,德国总理安格拉·默克尔(Angela Merkel)也提出“社会市场”——由共识─建构政策(consensus –building policies)的组合来约束的市场——这个旧的德国观念作为新资本主义的可能蓝图(虽然在最近的危机中,德国并不比其他的市场经济体做得更好)。

就长远而论,社会组织当然是需要改变的,这不仅仅是为了应对眼前的危机。在可能出现的很多问题中,我将分离出以下三个。首先,我们真的需要某一种“新资本主义”吗?我们原来的经济体系,并不是单一集中式的经济体系,它建立的基础是实践中产生的各种各样的制度,它的社会价值是我们可以从道德上进行辩护的。我们是否应该寻找另一种形式的新资本主义,或者,套用巴黎会议的说法,一个“新世界”,以建立一种不同的体制。

第二个问题是,我们现在需要的是哪种经济学,特别是考虑到眼下的经济危机。我们如何评价理论经济学家所教导和拥护的、作为经济政策之向导的经济学思想。这包括,我们如何评价近几个月以来,随着危机的加剧而发生的凯恩斯主义之复兴。尤其是,目前这场经济危机指示我们去寻找哪一种体制、哪一种优先性。第三个问题,除了努力对长远的变革需要的是什么进行更好的评估之外,我们还不得不思考——快速地思考——如何在尽可能减少损失的前提下摆脱目前的危机。

二 

是什么特殊性质使得一个体制成为货真价实的资本主义体制(无论新的还是旧的)?如果要改革现行的资本主义经济体制,那么,是什么令改革的结果是一个新的资本主义而不是别的东西?普遍的观点似乎认为,依靠市场进行经济交易是将一种经济体确认为资本主义的必要条件。与此类似,依靠利润驱动和建立在私有权基础之上的个人报酬,被看作资本主义的典型特征。然而,如果这些是必要条件,那么我们现行的经济体制,比如欧洲和美国的经济体制,果真是资本主义的吗?

世界上所有的富裕国家,包括欧洲的富裕国家,和美国、加拿大、日本、新加坡、南韩、澳大利亚以及其他国家,已经在相当长的时间内,部分地依靠非市场的交易方式和其他偿付方式了。这包括失业福利、公共养老金、其他形式的社会保障,以及教育供应、健康护理和其他一系列不通过市场安排来分配的服务。与这些服务相联系的经济权利,并不建立在私有权和财产权的基础之上。

同样,市场经济也并非仅仅依靠利润最大化来运转,它还依靠很多其他活动,比如维持公共安全和提供公共服务的活动,其中一些已经远远不是仅由利益驱使的经济活动了。在运转良好的时候,所谓的资本主义体制令人称道的表现,来自于一种混合机制(a combination of institutions)——公共基金教育、医疗护理和大众运输仅仅是其中的一小部分——这种机制不用依赖利润最大化的市场经济和局限于私有制的个人权利。

这个讨论的背后是一个更加基本的问题:在今天,资本主义是不是一个具有特定用法的术语?在历史上,资本主义观念确实具有过重要的地位,然而到如今,其有效性或许已经所剩无几了。

比如,亚当·斯密在18世纪的先驱性著作说明了市场经济的有效性和动力机制以及这种动力机制何以能够运转,特别是它怎样运转。正当这一运转机制强势地兴起时,斯密的研究提供了一份对于市场之运转的具有启发意义的诊断。1776年发表的《国富论》对于理解所谓的资本主义作出了里程碑式的贡献。斯密说明了,自由交易是如何通过生产专业化、劳动分工和充分利用大规模经济,从而极为有效地促进经济繁荣的。

这些学说直到今天仍然是非常切题的(有趣的是,为保罗·克鲁格曼(Paul Krugman)赢得最近的诺贝尔经济学奖的作品对于国际贸易作出的令人印象深刻、高度精深的分析,和斯密230多年前的高瞻远瞩密切相关)。在18世纪对市场和资本运用的早期阐释之后,紧接着出现的经济学分析在主流经济学内部成功地建立起了一个牢固的市场观念体系。

然而,就在资本主义通过市场进程带来的积极贡献正被阐释和说明的同时,其消极的一面,也常常为同一些分析家所洞察。虽然大量的社会批评家(其中最突出的当属卡尔·马克思)对资本主义提出了影响深远的谴责,以及对它的最终取代方案,但是,即便是对于亚当·斯密来说,完全依靠市场经济和利润驱动的巨大局限性也同样是足够清楚的。事实上,包括斯密在内,市场运行的早期提倡者们并没有把纯市场机制看作是一种独立的、完美的运行体制,同样,他们也并不认为利润驱动就是所需的一切。

即便说人们寻求交易是出于私利(self-interest,根据斯密的著名说法——想要解释面包工、酿酒师、屠户和消费者为什么寻求交易,只需私利就足够了),但是,只有建立在不同人群的相互信任的基础之上,一种经济才能有效运转。如果包括银行和其他金融机构的活动在内的商业活动形成一种信用,即它们能够、并将会做自己承诺之事,那么,借贷者之间的关系就能够以一种互助的方式平稳地进行下去。正如亚当·斯密写道的:

一国人民若相信某银行家资产雄厚,行为诚实,处事谨慎,换言之,相信他有随时兑换现金的能力和意思,那银行家发行的本票,便可在社会上通用,无异于金币银币,因为人们深信用它们可以随时兑换金银货币。 [1]

斯密解释了为什么这种情况有时候并未发生,而且,我认为,对于商业和银行如今面对的由广泛的恐惧和不信任所带来的困难——这种恐惧和不信任冻结了信用市场,妨碍了信用的有序扩张——他不会感到特别困惑。

在这个背景之下,特别是考虑到“福利国家”是在斯密的时代之后很长时间才出现的,因而同样值得一提的是,在他的不同作品中,他对穷人和弱势群体的命运的极度关注(和担忧)是非常显著而令人惊讶的。市场机制最切近的不足之处,就隐藏在那些市场无所作为的事情之中。斯密的经济学分析根本不是把一切交给市场机制的 “看不见的手”。他不仅支持国家在提供公共服务方面的作用,比如教育和贫困救济(同时,要求那些接受援助的贫困者获得比当时的《济贫法》给予他们的更大的自由),而且他深深地关注可能存在的赤贫和不公正现象(除非消除它们,否则市场经济便是不成功的)。

很多自称追随斯密的人对市场的必然性和自足性缺乏清楚的区分,因而对斯密对市场机制的评估产生了一些误解。例如,斯密对食物市场的支持以及对国家限制食用粮食私人交易的批评,经常被解释为这样一种观点:任何国家干预必然会导致饥荒的恶化。

但是,斯密对私人交易的支持,仅仅是为了反驳那种认为停止食物交易就能够消除饥饿负担的信念。这并没有以任何方式否认,市场的运转需要国家行为通过创造工作岗位和收入来进行补充(比如,通过工作法案)。如果失业的急剧增长是因为不良的经济环境或者不良的公共政策,那么市场无法仅凭自身重新创造出那些失业者的收入。斯密写道,“新的失业者要么饿死,要么通过乞讨或犯罪——甚至可能犯极恶之罪——来维持生存”,而且“贫困、饥荒和死亡将会立刻弥漫……”[2] 斯密反对排斥市场的干预,但是不反对那些容纳市场并且以补充市场未做的重要事务为目标的干预。

斯密从未使用“资本主义”这个术语(至少在我能够搜寻的范围之内),然而,想要从他的著作中塑造出任何一种论证市场力量的自足性或论证接受资本统治的必要性的理论也是很难的。他讨论的是那些更加宽泛的价值的重要性,这些价值超越了《国富论》中的利润,在他的第一本书,正好在250年之前的1759年发表的《道德情操论》中,他对以非逐利价值为基础的强烈的行为需要进行了广泛的研究。当他写道“审慎”是“所有德性中对个人最有用处的”,亚当·斯密接着说,“仁慈、正义、慷慨和公共精神,是对他人最有用处的品质”。 [3]

斯密认为,市场和资本在它们自己的领域之内运转良好,但是,首先,它们需要来自其他机构——包括公共服务,诸如学校——以及纯粹利润追求之外的价值的支持。其次,它们还需要来自其他机构的限制和纠正——例如设计良好的金融规则和国家对穷人的援助——以防止不稳定、不公正和不正义。如果我们想要寻找一种组织经济活动的新方式,它包括对各种公共服务和考虑周良的规则的合乎实效的选择,那么,我们会是在跟随,而不是背离斯密对资本主义所作的辩护和批评中所描绘的改革计划。

历史地看,直到新的法律体系和经济实践对财产权进行保护,并使得一个建立在所有权基础之上的经济能够运转的时候,资本主义才出现。在商业道德使得契约行为变得可以维持并且不再昂贵——比如,不再需要对疏怠职责的契约方进行持久的诉讼——之前,商业交易是无法有效进行的。在因腐败而获取的高利润受到限制之前,对生产性行业的投资也不能够繁荣。利润导向的资本主义始终要依靠其他制度性价值的支持。

由于充斥着衍生物的二级市场和其他金融工具的迅速发展,与交易相联系的道德和法律的义务及责任在近些年来已经变得难以辨认。现在,一个误导借贷者承担轻率风险的次级贷款的贷主,可以将金融资产转移给远离原初交易的第三方。可问责性被严重削弱了,监督和规范的需要变得更加强烈。

然而,就在同一时期,由于越来越相信市场经济的自我调控性质,政府(特别是美国政府)的监督任务被急剧缩减了。恰恰在更需要国家监督的时候,被需要的监督却收缩了。去年实际发生的灾难就是这一隐患的结果,它无疑在很大程度上导致了今天这场困扰着世界的金融危机。金融活动之规范的不足,不仅牵涉到非法活动,而且隐含着过度投机的倾向。正如亚当·斯密所说,这一倾向将很多人掌控在他们的紧张得令人窒息的利润追逐之中。

斯密将那些过度的求利风险的鼓吹者称为“投机分子”,这一说法是对过去几年中的次级贷款放债人的绝好形容。例如,在讨论反高利贷法的时候,斯密希望国家规范在那些鼓吹不稳定贷款的“投机分子”面前,为公民提供保护:

这样,国家的巨大资本,就不能为想赚钱并有利使用的人所用,而落入那些浪费者和破坏者的手中。[4]

对于市场经济的自我纠正能力的盲目信任,在很大程度上,要为美国的制度规范之被取消负责,它如此忽视投机分子的活动,足以令亚当·斯密震惊。

目前的经济危机,部分产生于一种对于市场进程的明智性的过度高估,而现在,这场危机正在被金融市场和一般的商业领域中的焦虑和信任缺失所加剧,这种焦虑和不信任在市场对一系列刺激计划(包括对奥巴马新政府于2月份通过的7870亿美元计划)的反应中表现得非常明显。也许不是巧合,斯密在18世纪就已经指出了这些问题,尽管如此,它们还是被近些年来的权威人士所忽略(特别是在美国),并且被那些一直忙着引用亚当·斯密以支持无约束的市场的人们所忽略。  

四  

就在近来亚当·斯密被大量引用(即使没有被大量阅读)的时候,最近又出现了约翰·梅纳德·凯恩斯的强盛复兴。确实,我们正在经历的、令我们步步濒临经济萧条的渐进式经济低迷(the cumulative downturn)具有明显的凯恩斯主义特征:一个人群的收入降低导致他们的消费衰减,进而反过来导致其他人群的收入降低。

然而,只是在非常局部的意义上,凯恩斯能够是我们的救星。并且,在对目前危机的理解中我们需要超越他的视角。有一个经济学家在当前的重要性被严重低估了,他是凯恩斯的对手庇古(Arthur Cecil Pigou),他和凯恩斯同时代,并且也在当时的剑桥大学国王学院。庇古远比凯恩斯更加关注经济心理学(economic psychology),以及它影响商业循环、塑造和强化把我们推向经济萧条的商业衰退(恰如我们现在看到的这样)的方式。庇古将经济波动部分地归咎于“心理原因”,它包括:

人们(他们的行为控制着产业)的心理波动,这种心理波动来自对商业预期的不当乐观或不当悲观所导致。[5]

很难忽略这一事实,即在“相互强化的低迷”的凯恩斯效应之外,今天,我们强烈遭遇到了“不恰当的悲观主义的错误”。庇古特别强调,当经济被过度的悲观主义控制时有必要解冻信用市场:

因此,在其他保持不变的情况下,商业失败的扩散是广还是窄,取决于银行贷款的获得,在面对需求危机的时候,是易还是难。[6]

尽管美国和欧洲的经济拥有新的资产流动性的大量注入(大部分来自于政府),然而银行和金融机构直到现在仍然不愿意解冻信用市场。其他商业领域也在持续衰退,这部分上是对已经衰减了的需求的反应(凯恩斯主义的“乘数”过程),但同时,这也是由于恐惧普遍消沉的气氛中未来需求的走低(庇古主义的传染性悲观主义)所造成的。

奥巴马政府不得不处理的一个问题在于,起因于金融管理不善和其他违规现象的现实的危机,被一场心理崩溃放大了好几倍。现在,在华盛顿和其他地方正被讨论的再生信用市场的方案,包括紧急融资(企业要求对真正放贷的金融机构进行补贴),政府购买不良资产,针对偿款失败进行保险,以及银行国家化(这最后一个提议令很多保守派吓坏了,正如交给银行的公共资金被私人控制让关心可问责性的人们感到担忧一样)。迄今为止,市场对于政府提出的方案的回应很冷谈,这说明,这些政策中的每一个都要求部分地评估其对商家和消费者的心理影响,特别是在美国。  

五  

还有一个理由,也能够说明庇古和凯恩斯之对比的重要性。尽管凯恩斯非常关注如何增加总收入的问题,但是他对财富和社会福利分配不公问题的分析,却相对较少。相比之下,庇古不仅有对福利经济学的经典研究,而且他率先把对经济不公的评测作为经济和政策评估的主要指标。[7] 既然在每一种经济体内部,以及在全世界,最贫穷者的苦难迫切需要关注,那么政府和商业之间的支持性协作的作用就不能仅限于相互协调推进经济。在安排对目前危机的反应方案时,在不择手段地进行普遍性经济扩张时,我们有进行批判的必要,并给予社会底层以特别的关注。受到失业威胁、缺乏医疗护理并且遭到经济和社会的双重剥夺的家庭承受了尤为严重的打击。凯恩斯主义在处理他们的问题上面的局限性,需要引起我们更大的注意。

凯恩斯需要被补充的第三个方面,涉及他对社会服务的相对忽视——事实上,在这个课题上面,甚至奥托·冯·俾斯麦都比凯恩斯谈得更多。我们时代的一些主流经济学家,包括保罗·萨缪尔森(Paul Samuelson)和肯尼思·阿罗(Kenneth Arrow)已经在讨论市场经济在提供公共福利(比如教育和健康护理)方面的重大缺陷;通过对“外部效应”(external effects)——市场交易的收益和损失并非仅限于直接的买者和卖者——的强调,庇古也对这个课题作出了自己的贡献。当然,这是一个长期的话题,但是值得注意的是,如果医疗护理不能保证提供给所有人的话,那么经济低迷的阵痛将会更加剧烈。

例如,在缺乏国民医疗服务的情况下,每一次失业都将导致更大的问题,即失业者被排除在基本的医疗护理之外,这要么是因为收入的丧失,要么是因为和工作绑定在一起的私人医疗保险的丧失。美国目前的失业率为7.6%,而严重的匮乏状况已经出现。值得一问的是:几十年以来,包括法国、意大利、西班牙在内的欧洲国家,何以能够在失业率高得多的情况下成功避免生活质量的全面崩溃?答案部分在于,欧洲福利国家的运转方式具有比美国强大得多的失业保险,而且,更重要的在于,欧洲国家向全民提供基本的医疗服务。

市场机制提供面向全民的医疗保健的失败是臭名昭著的,其最显著的体现是美国,另外是在1979年废除了全民医疗保健之后的中国,卫生和保健事业的进展出现了急剧的停滞,也体现了这一点。在那一年的经济改革之前,国家或合作社向每一个中国公民提供了健康护理的保障,即便水平相当低。在取消了农业合作社(人民公社)和官僚控制的工业单位这种对生产有害无益的制度之后,中国获得了高于任何国家的国内生产总值增长率。但同时,在对市场经济的信任的引导下,中国也取消了全民医疗保健制度;而且在1979年改革之后,健康保险不得不由个人购买(除了在一些相对罕见的情况下,国家或某些大公司向它们的雇员或家属提供保险)。由于这一转变,中国在人均寿命方面的增速放缓。即便在中国的总体收入急速增长的时候,这也是一个非常严重的问题,而当中国经济急剧减速的时候(正如现在的情况),它便注定要成为一个更加严重的问题。现在,中国政府正在尽力逐步地重新引入面向全民的医疗保险,而奥巴马之下的美国政府,也致力于使得健康保险全民化。中国和美国的调整进程都有漫长的路要走,但是在应对经济危机以及实现两种社会的长期转型方面,这一调整应该是居于核心地位的。  

凯恩斯的复兴很大程度上得益于经济分析和政策分析,但是我们的视野必须更广一些。尽管在当代经济学界,凯恩斯经常被看作是某种“反叛”人物,然而,他实则更接近一个新资本主义的领袖,他关注的焦点在于力图使市场经济的波动稳定化(从而,相对较少关注商业波动的心理原因)。尽管斯密和庇古被人们认为是更保守的经济学家,然而,很多关于非市场机构和非逐利价值的重要性的深刻洞见,来自于他们而非凯恩斯及其跟随者。

危机,并非仅仅提出了一个我们不得不面对的当下挑战,它也提供了一个处理长远问题的机会,因为这时候人们愿意重新考虑那些已经建立起来的传统。这就是为什么目前这场危机使得那些曾被忽视的长远话题变得重要起来:比如环境保护、全民医疗服务,以及公共交通的必要性(这一点在过去的几十年中被严重忽视了,而且,甚至直到奥巴马政府宣布首批政策的时候——也就是我写这篇文章的时候——它仍然被远远地放在局外)。经济的承受能力当然是一个问题,然而,正如喀拉拉邦的印度政府的范例所表明的,以相对较低的成本建立面向全民的由国家保障的全民医疗服务是可能的。因为中国在1979年取消了全民健康保险,所以,虽然喀拉拉邦在人均收入水平方面远远低于中国,但是由于一直实行全民健康保险,喀拉拉邦在平均生活水平和婴儿死亡率等指标方面,却已经实质性地超过了中国。因此,对于贫穷国家来说,机会也是存在的。

但是,美国面临着最大的挑战。在世界范围内,它的人均医疗保健支出水平已经是所有国家中最高的了,然而它在医疗保健方面的成绩仍然相对较低,而且有超过4000万人口缺乏医疗护理的保障。这里的问题部分上缘自于公众的态度和理解。关于国民医疗服务的运行方式被严重扭曲了的观念,需要在公共讨论中加以纠正。例如,美国人普遍认为,在欧洲的国民医疗服务中人们不能对医生进行选择,可是这完全不是事实。

然而,对于现存的各种选择,也需要有一个更好的理解。在美国对健康改革的讨论中,人们过度地关注加拿大体制(在这种公共健康护理体制中,人们将很难获得私人医疗护理);然而,西欧的国家健康服务既为全民提供护理,而在国家保险之外,也允许那些有钱并有此意愿者进行私人治疗,购买私人健康保险。为什么有钱人可以把他们的钱自由地花在游艇和其他奢侈品上面,却不允许他们购买MRIS或者CT扫描仪,这一点是不甚清楚的。如果我们从亚当·斯密的体制多样化的主张,以及调控多种动机的观点中获得提示,那么我们就可以采取实际可行的方案,对我们现在生活的世界进行巨大的改造。

我认为,目前的这场危机并没有要求一种“新资本主义”,但是它确实要求一种对旧有观念的新的理解,比如斯密的观念,以及和我们的时代更接近的庇古的观念,这些观念中有很多一直被我们可悲地忽视了。我们同样需要的是对于不同体制的实际运行方式具有更清楚的认识,并且认识到,从市场到国家机构的各种组织能够超越短期的解决方案,对建设一个更加合理的经济世界作出贡献。

(译者单位:北大哲学系)

《文化纵横》2009年第3期


Capitalism Beyond the Crisis

by Amartya Sen

1.

2008 was a year of crises. First, we had a food crisis, particularly threatening to poor consumers, especially in Africa. Along with that came a record increase in oil prices, threatening all oil-importing countries. Finally, rather suddenly in the fall, came the global economic downturn, and it is now gathering speed at a frightening rate. The year 2009 seems likely to offer a sharp intensification of the downturn, and many economists are anticipating a full-scale depression, perhaps even one as large as in the 1930s. While substantial fortunes have suffered steep declines, the people most affected are those who were already worst off.

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.”

The idea of old and new capitalism played an energizing part at a symposium called “New World, New Capitalism” held in Paris in January and hosted by the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the former British prime minister Tony Blair, both of whom made eloquent presentations on the need for change. So did German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who talked about the old German idea of a “social market”—one restrained by a mixture of consensus-building policies—as a possible blueprint for new capitalism (though Germany has not done much better in the recent crisis than other market economies).

Ideas about changing the organization of society in the long run are clearly needed, quite apart from strategies for dealing with an immediate crisis. I would separate out three questions from the many that can be raised. First, do we really need some kind of “new capitalism” rather than an economic system that is not monolithic, draws on a variety of institutions chosen pragmatically, and is based on social values that we can defend ethically? Should we search for a new capitalism or for a “new world”—to use the other term mentioned at the Paris meeting—that would take a different form?

The second question concerns the kind of economics that is needed today, especially in light of the present economic crisis. How do we assess what is taught and championed among academic economists as a guide to economic policy—including the revival of Keynesian thought in recent months as the crisis has grown fierce? More particularly, what does the present economic crisis tell us about the institutions and priorities to look for? Third, in addition to working our way toward a better assessment of what long-term changes are needed, we have to think—and think fast—about how to get out of the present crisis with as little damage as possible.

2.

What are the special characteristics that make a system indubitably capitalist—old or new? If the present capitalist economic system is to be reformed, what would make the end result a new capitalism, rather than something else? It seems to be generally assumed that relying on markets for economic transactions is a necessary condition for an economy to be identified as capitalist. In a similar way, dependence on the profit motive and on individual rewards based on private ownership are seen as archetypal features of capitalism. However, if these are necessary requirements, are the economic systems we currently have, for example, in Europe and America, genuinely capitalist?

All affluent countries in the world—those in Europe, as well as the US, Canada, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, and others—have, for quite some time now, depended partly on transactions and other payments that occur largely outside markets. These include unemployment benefits, public pensions, other features of social security, and the provision of education, health care, and a variety of other services distributed through nonmarket arrangements. The economic entitlements connected with such services are not based on private ownership and property rights.

Also, the market economy has depended for its own working not only on maximizing profits but also on many other activities, such as maintaining public security and supplying public services—some of which have taken people well beyond an economy driven only by profit. The creditable performance of the so-called capitalist system, when things moved forward, drew on a combination of institutions—publicly funded education, medical care, and mass transportation are just a few of many—that went much beyond relying only on a profit-maximizing market economy and on personal entitlements confined to private ownership.

Underlying this issue is a more basic question: whether capitalism is a term that is of particular use today. The idea of capitalism did in fact have an important role historically, but by now that usefulness may well be fairly exhausted.

For example, the pioneering works of Adam Smith in the eighteenth century showed the usefulness and dynamism of the market economy, and why—and particularly how—that dynamism worked. Smith’s investigation provided an illuminating diagnosis of the workings of the market just when that dynamism was powerfully emerging. The contribution that The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, made to the understanding of what came to be called capitalism was monumental. Smith showed how the freeing of trade can very often be extremely helpful in generating economic prosperity through specialization in production and division of labor and in making good use of economies of large scale.

Those lessons remain deeply relevant even today (it is interesting that the impressive and highly sophisticated analytical work on international trade for which Paul Krugman received the latest Nobel award in economics was closely linked to Smith’s far-reaching insights of more than 230 years ago). The economic analyses that followed those early expositions of markets and the use of capital in the eighteenth century have succeeded in solidly establishing the market system in the corpus of mainstream economics.

However, even as the positive contributions of capitalism through market processes were being clarified and explicated, its negative sides were also becoming clear—often to the very same analysts. While a number of socialist critics, most notably Karl Marx, influentially made a case for censuring and ultimately supplanting capitalism, the huge limitations of relying entirely on the market economy and the profit motive were also clear enough even to Adam Smith. Indeed, early advocates of the use of markets, including Smith, did not take the pure market mechanism to be a freestanding performer of excellence, nor did they take the profit motive to be all that is needed.

Even though people seek trade because of self-interest (nothing more than self-interest is needed, as Smith famously put it, in explaining why bakers, brewers, butchers, and consumers seek trade), nevertheless an economy can operate effectively only on the basis of trust among different parties. When business activities, including those of banks and other financial institutions, generate the confidence that they can and will do the things they pledge, then relations among lenders and borrowers can go smoothly in a mutually supportive way. As Adam Smith wrote:

When the people of any particular country have such confidence in the fortune, probity, and prudence of a particular banker, as to believe that he is always ready to pay upon demand such of his promissory notes as are likely to be at any time presented to him; those notes come to have the same currency as gold and silver money, from the confidence that such money can at any time be had for them.[1]

Smith explained why sometimes this did not happen, and he would not have found anything particularly puzzling, I would suggest, in the difficulties faced today by businesses and banks thanks to the widespread fear and mistrust that is keeping credit markets frozen and preventing a coordinated expansion of credit.

It is also worth mentioning in this context, especially since the “welfare state” emerged long after Smith’s own time, that in his various writings, his overwhelming concern—and worry—about the fate of the poor and the disadvantaged are strikingly prominent. The most immediate failure of the market mechanism lies in the things that the market leaves undone. Smith’s economic analysis went well beyond leaving everything to the invisible hand of the market mechanism. He was not only a defender of the role of the state in providing public services, such as education, and in poverty relief (along with demanding greater freedom for the indigents who received support than the Poor Laws of his day provided), he was also deeply concerned about the inequality and poverty that might survive in an otherwise successful market economy.

Lack of clarity about the distinction between the necessity and sufficiency of the market has been responsible for some misunderstandings of Smith’s assessment of the market mechanism by many who would claim to be his followers. For example, Smith’s defense of the food market and his criticism of restrictions by the state on the private trade in food grains have often been interpreted as arguing that any state interference would necessarily make hunger and starvation worse.

But Smith’s defense of private trade only took the form of disputing the belief that stopping trade in food would reduce the burden of hunger. That does not deny in any way the need for state action to supplement the operations of the market by creating jobs and incomes (e.g., through work programs). If unemployment were to increase sharply thanks to bad economic circumstances or bad public policy, the market would not, on its own, recreate the incomes of those who have lost their jobs. The new unemployed, Smith wrote, “would either starve, or be driven to seek a subsistence either by begging, or by the perpetration perhaps of the greatest enormities,” and “want, famine, and mortality would immediately prevail….”[2] Smith rejects interventions that exclude the market—but not interventions that include the market while aiming to do those important things that the market may leave undone.

Smith never used the term “capitalism” (at least so far as I have been able to trace), but it would also be hard to carve out from his works any theory arguing for the sufficiency of market forces, or of the need to accept the dominance of capital. He talked about the importance of these broader values that go beyond profits in The Wealth of Nations, but it is in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was published exactly a quarter of a millennium ago in 1759, that he extensively investigated the strong need for actions based on values that go well beyond profit seeking. While he wrote that “prudence” was “of all the virtues that which is most useful to the individual,” Adam Smith went on to argue that “humanity, justice, generosity, and public spirit, are the qualities most useful to others.”[3]

Smith viewed markets and capital as doing good work within their own sphere, but first, they required support from other institutions—including public services such as schools—and values other than pure profit seeking, and second, they needed restraint and correction by still other institutions—e.g., well-devised financial regulations and state assistance to the poor—for preventing instability, inequity, and injustice. If we were to look for a new approach to the organization of economic activity that included a pragmatic choice of a variety of public services and well-considered regulations, we would be following rather than departing from the agenda of reform that Smith outlined as he both defended and criticized capitalism.

3.

Historically, capitalism did not emerge until new systems of law and economic practice protected property rights and made an economy based on ownership workable. Commercial exchange could not effectively take place until business morality made contractual behavior sustainable and inexpensive—not requiring constant suing of defaulting contractors, for example. Investment in productive businesses could not flourish until the higher rewards from corruption had been moderated. Profit-oriented capitalism has always drawn on support from other institutional values.

The moral and legal obligations and responsibilities associated with transactions have in recent years become much harder to trace, thanks to the rapid development of secondary markets involving derivatives and other financial instruments. A subprime lender who misleads a borrower into taking unwise risks can now pass off the financial assets to third parties—who are remote from the original transaction. Accountability has been badly undermined, and the need for supervision and regulation has become much stronger.

And yet the supervisory role of government in the United States in particular has been, over the same period, sharply curtailed, fed by an increasing belief in the self-regulatory nature of the market economy. Precisely as the need for state surveillance grew, the needed supervision shrank. There was, as a result, a disaster waiting to happen, which did eventually happen last year, and this has certainly contributed a great deal to the financial crisis that is plaguing the world today. The insufficient regulation of financial activities has implications not only for illegitimate practices, but also for a tendency toward overspeculation that, as Adam Smith argued, tends to grip many human beings in their breathless search for profits.

Smith called the promoters of excessive risk in search of profits “prodigals and projectors”—which is quite a good description of issuers of subprime mortgages over the past few years. Discussing laws against usury, for example, Smith wanted state regulation to protect citizens from the “prodigals and projectors” who promoted unsound loans:

A great part of the capital of the country would thus be kept out of the hands which were most likely to make a profitable and advantageous use of it, and thrown into those which were most likely to waste and destroy it.[4]

The implicit faith in the ability of the market economy to correct itself, which is largely responsible for the removal of established regulations in the United States, tended to ignore the activities of prodigals and projectors in a way that would have shocked Adam Smith.

The present economic crisis is partly generated by a huge overestimation of the wisdom of market processes, and the crisis is now being exacerbated by anxiety and lack of trust in the financial market and in businesses in general—responses that have been evident in the market reactions to the sequence of stimulus plans, including the $787 billion plan signed into law in February by the new Obama administration. As it happens, these problems were already identified in the eighteenth century by Smith, even though they have been neglected by those who have been in authority in recent years, especially in the United States, and who have been busy citing Adam Smith in support of the unfettered market.

4.

While Adam Smith has recently been much quoted, even if not much read, there has been a huge revival, even more recently, of John Maynard Keynes. Certainly, the cumulative downturn that we are observing right now, which is edging us closer to a depression, has clear Keynesian features; the reduced incomes of one group of persons has led to reduced purchases by them, in turn causing a further reduction in the income of others.

However, Keynes can be our savior only to a very partial extent, and there is a need to look beyond him in understanding the present crisis. One economist whose current relevance has been far less recognized is Keynes’s rival Arthur Cecil Pigou, who, like Keynes, was also in Cambridge, indeed also in Kings College, in Keynes’s time. Pigou was much more concerned than Keynes with economic psychology and the ways it could influence business cycles and sharpen and harden an economic recession that could take us toward a depression (as indeed we are seeing now). Pigou attributed economic fluctuations partly to “psychological causes” consisting of

variations in the tone of mind of persons whose action controls industry, emerging in errors of undue optimism or undue pessimism in their business forecasts.[5]

It is hard to ignore the fact that today, in addition to the Keynesian effects of mutually reinforced decline, we are strongly in the presence of “errors of…undue pessimism.” Pigou focused particularly on the need to unfreeze the credit market when the economy is in the grip of excessive pessimism:

Hence, other things being equal, the actual occurrence of business failures will be more or less widespread, according [to whether] bankers’ loans, in the face of crisis of demands, are less or more readily obtainable.[6]

Despite huge injections of fresh liquidity into the American and European economies, largely from the government, the banks and financial institutions have until now remained unwilling to unfreeze the credit market. Other businesses also continue to fail, partly in response to already diminished demand (the Keynesian “multiplier” process), but also in response to fear of even less demand in the future, in a climate of general gloom (the Pigovian process of infectious pessimism).

One of the problems that the Obama administration has to deal with is that the real crisis, arising from financial mismanagement and other transgressions, has become many times magnified by a psychological collapse. The measures that are being discussed right now in Washington and elsewhere to regenerate the credit market include bailouts—with firm requirements that subsidized financial institutions actually lend—government purchase of toxic assets, insurance against failure to repay loans, and bank nationalization. (The last proposal scares many conservatives just as private control of the public money given to the banks worries people concerned about accountability.) As the weak response of the market to the administration’s measures so far suggests, each of these policies would have to be assessed partly for their impact on the psychology of businesses and consumers, particularly in America.

5.

The contrast between Pigou and Keynes is relevant for another reason as well. While Keynes was very involved with the question of how to increase aggregate income, he was relatively less engaged in analyzing problems of unequal distribution of wealth and of social welfare. In contrast, Pigou not only wrote the classic study of welfare economics, but he also pioneered the measurement of economic inequality as a major indicator for economic assessment and policy.[7] Since the suffering of the most deprived people in each economy—and in the world—demands the most urgent attention, the role of supportive cooperation between business and government cannot stop only with mutually coordinated expansion of an economy. There is a critical need for paying special attention to the underdogs of society in planning a response to the current crisis, and in going beyond measures to produce general economic expansion. Families threatened with unemployment, with lack of medical care, and with social as well as economic deprivation have been hit particularly hard. The limitations of Keynesian economics to address their problems demand much greater recognition.

A third way in which Keynes needs to be supplemented concerns his relative neglect of social services—indeed even Otto von Bismarck had more to say on this subject than Keynes. That the market economy can be particularly bad in delivering public goods (such as education and health care) has been discussed by some of the leading economists of our time, including Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow. (Pigou too contributed to this subject with his emphasis on the “external effects” of market transactions, where the gains and losses are not confined only to the direct buyers or sellers.) This is, of course, a long-term issue, but it is worth noting in addition that the bite of a downturn can be much fiercer when health care in particular is not guaranteed for all.

For example, in the absence of a national health service, every lost job can produce a larger exclusion from essential health care, because of loss of income or loss of employment-related private health insurance. The US has a 7.6 percent rate of unemployment now, which is beginning to cause huge deprivation. It is worth asking how the European countries, including France, Italy, and Spain, that lived with much higher levels of unemployment for decades, managed to avoid a total collapse of their quality of life. The answer is partly the way the European welfare state operates, with much stronger unemployment insurance than in America and, even more importantly, with basic medical services provided to all by the state.

The failure of the market mechanism to provide health care for all has been flagrant, most noticeably in the United States, but also in the sharp halt in the progress of health and longevity in China following its abolition of universal health coverage in 1979. Before the economic reforms of that year, every Chinese citizen had guaranteed health care provided by the state or the cooperatives, even if at a rather basic level. When China removed its counterproductive system of agricultural collectives and communes and industrial units managed by bureaucracies, it thereby made the rate of growth of gross domestic product go up faster than anywhere else in the world. But at the same time, led by its new faith in the market economy, China also abolished the system of universal health care; and, after the reforms of 1979, health insurance had to be bought by individuals (except in some relatively rare cases in which the state or some big firms provide them to their employees and dependents). With this change, China’s rapid progress in longevity sharply slowed down.

This was problem enough when China’s aggregate income was growing extremely fast, but it is bound to become a much bigger problem when the Chinese economy decelerates sharply, as it is currently doing. The Chinese government is now trying hard to gradually reintroduce health insurance for all, and the US government under Obama is also committed to making health coverage universal. In both China and the US, the rectifications have far to go, but they should be central elements in tackling the economic crisis, as well as in achieving long-term transformation of the two societies.

6.

The revival of Keynes has much to contribute both to economic analysis and to policy, but the net has to be cast much wider. Even though Keynes is often seen as a kind of a “rebel” figure in contemporary economics, the fact is that he came close to being the guru of a new capitalism, who focused on trying to stabilize the fluctuations of the market economy (and then again with relatively little attention to the psychological causes of business fluctuations). Even though Smith and Pigou have the reputation of being rather conservative economists, many of the deep insights about the importance of nonmarket institutions and nonprofit values came from them, rather than from Keynes and his followers.

A crisis not only presents an immediate challenge that has to be faced. It also provides an opportunity to address long-term problems when people are willing to reconsider established conventions. This is why the present crisis also makes it important to face the neglected long-term issues like conservation of the environment and national health care, as well as the need for public transport, which has been very badly neglected in the last few decades and is also so far sidelined—as I write this article—even in the initial policies announced by the Obama administration. Economic affordability is, of course, an issue, but as the example of the Indian state of Kerala shows, it is possible to have state-guaranteed health care for all at relatively little cost. Since the Chinese dropped universal health insurance in 1979, Kerala—which continues to have it—has very substantially overtaken China in average life expectancy and in indicators such as infant mortality, despite having a much lower level of per capita income. So there are opportunities for poor countries as well.

But the largest challenges face the United States, which already has the highest level of per capita expenditure on health among all countries in the world, but still has a relatively low achievement in health and has more than forty million people with no guarantee of health care. Part of the problem here is one of public attitude and understanding. Hugely distorted perceptions of how a national health service works need to be corrected through public discussion. For example, it is common to assume that no one has a choice of doctors in a European national health service, which is not at all the case.

There is, however, also a need for better understanding of the options that exist. In US discussions of health reform, there has been an overconcentration on the Canadian system—a system of public health care that makes it very hard to have private medical care—whereas in Western Europe the national health services provide care for all but also allow, in addition to state coverage, private practice and private health insurance, for those who have the money and want to spend it this way. It is not clear just why the rich who can freely spend money on yachts and other luxury goods should not be allowed to spend it on MRIs or CT scans instead. If we take our cue from Adam Smith’s arguments for a diversity of institutions, and for accommodating a variety of motivations, there are practical measures we can take that would make a huge difference to the world in which we live.

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.

—February 25, 2009

Notes

[1]Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, edited by R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner (Clarendon Press, 1976), I, II.ii.28, p. 292.

[2]Smith, The Wealth of Nations, I, I.viii.26, p. 91.

[3]Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, edited by D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie (Clarendon Press, 1976), pp. 189–190.

[4]Smith, The Wealth of Nations, I, II.iv.15, p. 357.

[5]A.C. Pigou, Industrial Fluctuations (London: Macmillan, 1929), p. 73.

[6]Pigou, Industrial Fluctuations, p. 96.

[7]A.C. Pigou, The Economics of Welfare (London: Macmillan, 1920). Current works on economic inequality, including the major contributions of A.B. Atkinson, have been to a considerable extent inspired by Pigou’s pioneering initiative: see Atkinson, Social Justice and Public Policy (MIT Press, 1983).

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22490

Leave a Reply