Paul Lachine

How Capitalist is America?

If capitalism’s border is with socialism, we know why the world properly thinks of the US as strongly capitalist. But consider the extent to which capital – that is, shareholders – rules in large businesses: if a conflict arises between capital’s goals and those of managers, who wins?

CAMBRIDGE – If capitalism’s border is with socialism, we know why the world properly sees the United States as strongly capitalist. State ownership is low, and is viewed as aberrational when it occurs (such as the government takeovers of General Motors and Chrysler in recent years, from which officials are rushing to exit). The government intervenes in the economy less than in most advanced nations, and major social programs like universal health care are not as deeply embedded in the US as elsewhere.

But these are not the only dimensions to consider in judging how capitalist the US really is. Consider the extent to which capital – that is, shareholders – rules in large businesses: if a conflict arises between capital’s goals and those of managers, who wins?

Looked at in this way, America’s capitalism becomes more ambiguous. American law gives more authority to managers and corporate directors than to shareholders. If shareholders want to tell directors what to do – say, borrow more money and expand the business, or close off the money-losing factory – well, they just can’t. The law is clear: the corporation’s board of directors, not its shareholders, runs the business.

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