CAMBRIDGE – Capitalism is in the throes of its most severe crisis in many decades. A combination of deep recession, global economic dislocations, and effective nationalization of large swathes of the financial sector in the world’s advanced economies has deeply unsettled the balance between markets and states. Where the new balance will be struck is anybody’s guess.
Those who predict capitalism’s demise have to contend with one important historical fact: capitalism has an almost unlimited capacity to reinvent itself. Indeed, its malleability is the reason it has overcome periodic crises over the centuries and outlived critics from Karl Marx on. The real question is not whether capitalism can survive – it can – but whether world leaders will demonstrate the leadership needed to take it to its next phase as we emerge from our current predicament.
Capitalism has no equal when it comes to unleashing the collective economic energies of human societies. That is why all prosperous societies are capitalistic in the broad sense of the term: they are organized around private property and allow markets to play a large role in allocating resources and determining economic rewards. The catch is that neither property rights nor markets can function on their own. They require other social institutions to support them.
So property rights rely on courts and legal enforcement, and markets depend on regulators to rein in abuse and fix market failures. At the political level, capitalism requires compensation and transfer mechanisms to render its outcomes acceptable. As the current crisis has demonstrated yet again, capitalism needs stabilizing arrangements such as a lender of last resort and counter-cyclical fiscal policy. In other words, capitalism is not self-creating, self-sustaining, self-regulating, or self-stabilizing.