Uncertainty bedevils the best system

By Edmund Phelps

Ingram Pinn illustration

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In countries operating a largely capitalist system, there does not appear to be a wide understanding among its actors and overseers of either its advantages or its hazards. Ignorance of what it can contribute has in the past led some countries to throw out the system or clip its wings. Ignor­ance of the hazards has made imprudence in markets and policy neglect all the more likely. Regaining a well-functioning capitalism will require re-education and deep reform.

Capitalism is not the “free market” or laisser faire– a system of zero government “plus the constable”. Capitalist systems function less well without state protection of investors, lenders and companies against monopoly, deception and fraud. These systems may lack the requisite political support and cause social stresses without subsidies to stimulate inclusion of the less advantaged in society’s formal business economy. Last, a huge social insurance system, with resulting high taxes, low take-home pay and low wealth, may not hurt capitalism.

In essence, capitalist systems are a mechanism by which economies may generate growth in knowledge – with much uncertainty in the process, owing to the incompleteness of knowledge. Growth in knowledge leads to income growth and job satisfaction; uncertainty makes the economy prone to sudden swings – all phenomena noted by Marx in 1848. Understanding was slow to come, though.

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