Tag Archives: mixed economy

More About Economic Systems

A comment posted to yesterday’s blog noted that I had not defined capitalism. Fair point.

The following description is from my last book, Talking Politics? What You Need To Know Before Opening Your Mouth, in which I included the following descriptions/comparison of capitalism and socialism.

Capitalism is defined as an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit. It is characterized by free markets, where the prices of goods and services are determined by supply and demand, rather than set by government. Economists often define the ideal of free trade as a transaction between a willing buyer and a willing seller, both of whom are in possession of all information relevant to that transaction.

Understanding the importance of free trade to capitalism is important, because it defines the proper role of government in a capitalist system—as an “umpire” or referee, ensuring that everyone plays by the rules. For example, Teddy Roosevelt reminded us that monopolies distort markets; if one company can dominate a market, that company can dictate prices and other terms with the result that those transactions will no longer be truly voluntary. If Manufacturer A can avoid the cost of disposing of the waste produced by his factory, by dumping it into the nearest river, he will be able to compete unfairly with Manufacturer B, who is following the rules governing proper waste disposal. If Chicken Farmer A is able to control his costs and gain market share by failing to keep his coops clean and his chickens free of disease, unwary consumers will become ill. Most economists agree that in order for markets to operate properly, government must act as an “umpire,” assuring a level playing field.

This need for government is a response to what economists call “market failure.” There are three situations in which Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” doesn’t work: when monopolies or corrupt practices replace competition; when so-called “externalities” like pollution harm people who aren’t party to the transaction (who are neither buyer nor seller); and when there are “information asymmetries,” that is, when buyers don’t have access to information they need to bargain in their own interest. Since markets don’t have built-in mechanisms for dealing with these situations, most economists argue that regulation is needed.

Economists and others often disagree about the need for particular regulations, but most do agree that an absence of all regulatory activity undermines capitalism. Unregulated markets can lead to a different system, sometimes called corporatism. In corporatist systems, government regulations favoring powerful corporate interests are the result of lobbying by corporate and monied special interests that stand to benefit from them. You might think of it as a football game where one side has paid the umpire to make calls favorable to that team.

Socialism is the collective provision of goods and services. The decision whether to pay for certain services collectively rather than leaving their production and consumption to the free market can be based upon a number of factors. First, there are some goods that free markets cannot or will not produce. Economists call them public goods, and define them as both “non-excludable” –meaning that individuals who haven’t paid for them cannot be effectively kept from using them—and “non-rivalrous,” meaning that use by one person does not reduce the availability of that good to others. Examples of public goods include fresh air, knowledge, lighthouses, national defense, flood control systems and street lighting. If we are to have these goods, they must be supplied by the whole society, usually through government, and paid for with tax dollars.

Not all goods and services that we provide collectively are public goods. Policymakers have often based decisions to socialize services on other considerations: we socialize police and fire protection because doing so is generally more efficient and cost-effective, and because most of us believe that limiting such services only to people who can afford to pay for them would be immoral. We socialize garbage collection in more densely populated urban areas in order to enhance the livability of our cities and to prevent disease transmission.

Getting the “mix” right between goods that we provide collectively and those we leave to the free market is important, because too much socialism hampers economic health. Just as unrestrained capitalism can become corporatism, socializing the provision of goods that the market can supply reduces innovation and incentives to produce. During the 20th Century, many countries experimented with efforts to socialize major areas of their economies, and even implement  socialism’s extreme, communism, with uniformly poor results. Not only did economic productivity suffer, so did political freedom. (When governments have too much control over the means of production and distribution, they can easily become authoritarian.)

Virtually all countries today have mixed economies. The challenge is getting the right balance between socialized and free market provision of goods and services.

 

 

What’s In A Name?

Paul Krugman’s recent column in the New York Times was titled “Trump versus the Socialist Menace,” and the tag line beneath the title warned that commies were coming for your pick-up truck.

The title alluded to Trump’s most recent effort to generate fear in his base. Krugman reminded us that we’ve seen this movie before, when the horrible threat of Medicare was looming, and the AMA hatched a plan to defeat it.

Here’s how it worked: Doctors’ wives (hey, it was 1961) were asked to invite their friends over and play them a recording in which Ronald Reagan explained that socialized medicine would destroy American freedom. The housewives, in turn, were supposed to write letters to Congress denouncing the menace of Medicare.

Obviously the strategy didn’t work; Medicare not only came into existence, but it became so popular that these days Republicans routinely (and falsely) accuse Democrats of planning to cut the program’s funding. But the strategy — claiming that any attempt to strengthen the social safety net or limit inequality will put us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism — endures.

It sure does. It’s fed by America’s bipolar, “either-or” approach to policy and ignorance of economic systems.

In the real world, there are very few countries where either socialism or capitalism characterizes the entire economy. Virtually all democratic nations have a mixed economy, meaning that certain things are socialized (i.e., provided communally, through government and paid for by taxes) and others are left to the market.

The actual question facing policymakers is which approach is appropriate in a given situation.

America already “socializes” police and fire protection. Most cities “socialize” garbage collection. Our streets and sidewalks–and interstate highways–are “socialized.” (In a recent Facebook post, a friend warned that a “socialist snowplow” was coming down his street.)

One way to think about this (although “thinking” is apparently a difficult assignment for many folks) is that government is a mechanism through which societies provide infrastructure. Some of that infrastructure is physical–bridges, roads, etc.–and some of it is social. Police and firefighters, Social Security and Medicare and a variety of social welfare programs are part of the social infrastructure.

Market capitalism, properly regulated, is incredibly successful in providing goods and services when buyers and sellers are operating on relatively equal terms. Economists tell us that markets work well when there is 1) a willing buyer and a willing seller both of whom are in possession of all relevant information, and 2) government has ensured a level playing field.

Quite obviously, there are areas of the economy in which markets don’t work. (Utilities come to mind–when did you last take bids from companies wanting to supply your water or sewer?) In those areas, government gets involved, either through stringent regulation or –gasp!–by socializing the service.

It is perfectly reasonable to debate whether a given service or economic area should be left to the market or provided communally–and if the latter, how that should be done. It is both unreasonable and dishonest to pretend that every decision to socialize a service is a step toward totalitarian communism, but as Krugman says, that’s this administration’s rhetoric.

You say you want free college tuition? Think of all the people who died in the Ukraine famine! And no, this isn’t a caricature: Read the strange, smarmy report on socialism that Trump’s economists released last fall; that’s pretty much how its argument goes.

Ironically, these hysterical descriptions have actually made the word “socialism” less off-putting. Recent polls show a significant number of voters approving of socialism (including a majority of those under 30). They’ve evidently accepted conservative labeling that “describes anything that tempers the excesses of a market economy as socialism, and in effect said, “Well, in that case I’m a socialist.””

When words are used as invective, they no longer communicate anything of substance. I think that’s where we are with both capitalism and socialism, and that really impedes rational policymaking.