CAMBRIDGE – In the age-old contest of economic-growth models, state capitalism has seemed to be gaining the upper hand in recent years. Avatars of liberal capitalism like the United States and the United Kingdom continued to perform anemically in 2012, while many Asian countries, relying on various versions of dirigisme, have not only grown rapidly and steadily over the last several decades, but have also weathered recent economic storms with surprising grace. So, is it time to update the economics textbooks?
In fact, economics does not say that unfettered markets are better than state intervention or even state capitalism. The problems with state capitalism are primarily political, not economic. Any real-world economy is riddled with market failures, so a benevolent and omnipotent government could sensibly intervene quite often. But who has ever met a benevolent or omnipotent government?
To understand the logic of state capitalism, it is useful to recall some early examples – not the socialist command economies or modern societies seeking to combat market failures, but ancient civilizations. Indeed, it seems that, like farming or democracy, state capitalism has been independently invented many times in world history.
Consider the Greek Bronze Age, during which many powerful states, organized around a city housing the political elite, formed throughout the Mediterranean basin. These states had no money and essentially no markets. The state taxed agricultural output and controlled nearly all goods production. It monopolized trade, and, in the absence of money, moved all of the goods around by fiat. It supplied food and inputs to weavers and then took their output. In essence, the Greek Bronze Age societies had something that looked remarkably like state capitalism.