The Occupy Wall Street movement is a symptom of a growing public disquiet about the workings of market capitalism. As such, Monday night’s decision to close down the camp in New York City is unlikely to check the protests: if anything, the reverse may be true.
Public support for free markets is based on two broad arguments. The first is that they deliver more efficient outcomes than the alternatives. The second is that over time they create increased prosperity for society at large. Both these assumptions have taken a severe jolt in the past few years.
We now know that the efficient market theory is for the birds, and that market failures can have devastating consequences for wide sectors of the public. We also know that the fruits of economic success have become increasingly unevenly distributed. In the US, all the growth – and more – in recent years has flowed to those at the very top. The upper one per cent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year, double the proportion 25 years ago. Those in the middle have seen their real incomes fall over the same period, precipitously so in the case of those with only high school qualifications.
Rising income inequality. Very slow economic growth. High unemployment. It’s no wonder that even a number of politicians on the right have started to express a degree of sympathy for those who have been demonstrating around the world in recent weeks. The fact that the protesters have no clear agenda is irrelevant. They represent concerns that many people can relate to, and they are unlikely to go away.
So it may be that capitalism is approaching some kind of tipping point, away from the winner takes all culture of the past three decades. If left unchecked, public disquiet will sooner or later bring a political response, maybe in the form of much more aggressive regulations and progressive tax systems. These could be at least as damaging as the free market fundamentalism that they would seek to replace.
Much better for business itself to recognise that it has a real economic interest in the well-being of the societies in which it operates; that success or failure is not just determined by earnings per share or profits per partner; and that a successful market economy has to be built on a degree of trust and mutual respect. Capitalism has adapted to changing political and social pressures in the past, and now is time for it to do so again.
The writer was director-general of the CBI and is a former editor of the FT