Viewpoint

The coming clash over capitalism

Growing income inequality has critics questioning whether American capitalism needs a reconfiguration.
Growing income inequality has critics questioning whether American capitalism needs a reconfiguration. AP

We are clearly heading toward another great debate about the nature of capitalism. Contemporary capitalism’s critics are becoming both bolder and more intellectually rigorous. Protests and discussions are sprouting all over the place.

For example, this week I was attending the Aspen Action Forum, a gathering of young leaders selected because of their work for social change. My friend and Times colleague Anand Giridharadas delivered a courageous and provocative keynote address that ruffled some feathers, earned a standing ovation and has had people talking ever since.

Anand argued that a rough etiquette has developed among those who work in and raise money for nonprofits. The rich are to be praised for the good they do with their philanthropy, but they are never to be challenged for the harm they do in their businesses. “Capitalism’s rough edges must be sanded and its surplus fruit shared, but the underlying system must NEVER be questioned,” he said.

Anand suggested that in these days of growing income inequality, this approach is no longer good enough. “Sometimes I wonder,” he said, “whether these various forms of giving back have become to our era what the papal indulgence was to the Middle Ages: a relatively inexpensive way of getting oneself seemingly on the right side of justice, without having to alter the fundamentals of one’s life.”

Anand’s speech implied that government would have to get much more heavily involved in corporate governance and private-sector investment decisions.

Indeed, progressive economists are already walking down this path. Hillary Clinton’s new tax plan is based on the assumption that government officials are smart enough to tell investors how they should time their investments. Her corporate governance proposals are based on the idea that federal officials know better than executives how they should run their own companies.

This strikes me as a departure from recent progressivism. In the recent past progressives have argued for a little redistribution to fund human capital development: early childhood education, child and family leave, better community colleges.

But the next wave of thinking implies that it is not enough to simply give people access to capitalism and a safety net. The underlying system has to be reconfigured.

This is a bigger debate.

People like me will argue that it’s a wrong turn. First, government planners are not smart enough to plan complex systems in this way. The beauty of capitalism is that it takes a dim view of human reason. No group of experts is smart enough to allocate the resources of society well.

Second, the attempt to tame the market will end up stultifying it. Everybody knows that capitalism’s creative destruction can be rough. But over the last few decades, a ragged version of global capitalism in places ranging from China to Nigeria has brought about the greatest reduction in poverty in human history.

The coming debate about capitalism will be between those who want to restructure the underlying system and those who want to help people take advantage of its rough intensity. It will be between people who think you need strong government to defeat oligarchy and those who think you need open competition.

This will be fun.

David Brook is a New York Times columnist.

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