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Why the defensive tone?

Milan Brahmbhatt's picture

After reading Michael's post about the Singapore Annual Meetings seminar on "Raising the Stakes: New Frontiers for the Private Sector in Development", I thought I'd share a series of troubling and probably perverse questions that crossed my mind at the same event.

From my high-tier seat at the Suntec Theater, I listened to the informative and brilliant discourse coming from the brightly lit stage with its panel of seven notables (plunked on seven plush, over-sized, black leather 'Big Boy' executive swivel chairs). As Michael has already mentioned several of the speakers and the substance of the panel, I'll go straight to my questions.

Why the faint but persistent defensive tone that seems to ring in the background of this conversation? Why do we feel this need to defend, to provide evidence for the social value of private enterprise? Why is it not obvious that - when supported by an appropriate bodyguard of institutions, laws and shared moral values - private enterprise will, for the most part, of course generate rising prosperity for the mass of people, as most historical evidence suggests? (These preconditions are mainly institutions that foster vigorous competition and the free flow of information, while suppressing deception, fraud and theft. Oh all right, let's include public policies to mitigate the most egregious market and coordination failures, for example by putting up relevant chunks of public infrastructure.)

Why should we expect anything but general prosperity from a social system in which the main path to wealth and prominence consists of identifying and providing the goods and services that one's fellow citizens want to spend their money on? (As opposed to invading the Holy Land, or shooting one's comrades in the Politburo - typical roads to advancement in other social systems.) Why the suspicion of and even hostility to private enterprise widespread in even the most successful and broadly prosperous capitalist economies? (Later a left-wing friend tells me that this reading is demented, sheer right-wing paranoia. What she hears from the panel is, on the contrary, typical capitalist triumphalism, rather than the defensiveness I am picking up.)

Big questions that can't, unfortunately, be gone into here. For those who care, though, Jerry Muller's The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought provides an excellent survey of pro- and anti-capitalist thought in the West over the last 300 years, as well as of more dispassionate analyses, the great Adam Smith and Joseph Schumpeter's, for example.

The panel discussion was unfocused in some ways - no one got around to explicitly saying precisely which "New Frontiers" were in review - but it was not the less fascinating for that. It seems our panel did rather well, after all. Without straining for specious specificity, it seems to have thrown up or underlined a good many important questions that could repay further investigation. Good enough.


During my studies of International Development and Global Political Economy I wondered about similar questions. Why are some of my fellows very critical of enterprises, market economies, capitalism and Globalization? Theses people have fear of loosing power to "anonymous" capital without a face. I am sure there are many other reasons more. In such discussions prosperity and economic wealth statistics are not helping. This made me thinking about my own experiences... and developing the question: Why are we sure that mainly economic dimensions measure our "well-being" accurately? What about a happiness-dimension? Research on happyness has shown that above a certain line of income people are not happier. From my own personal experience, I can confirm that volunteering without income made me happier than earning $100.000 in a purely moneymaking job without spare time. Therefore, I believe that we should go beyond "hard" economic dimensions and include "soft" social dimensions as well. What do you think?

Submitted by Milan Brahmbhatt on
Juergen, by prosperity I mean a high level of social productivity that allows individuals more choices in their (much longer and healthier) lives. To that extent I think we agree. Your experience of doing volunteer work "without income" is a good example of the choices made possible by advanced capitalism. After all, by one means or another, society generated and channelled the resources to keep you well fed, clothed, housed and generally looked-after while you did your volunteering, and then gave you more choices for other things to do with your life later on. Certainly, money alone may not bring much extra happiness beyond a certain point. But then no one forces you to be obsessed with money, do they? You can find another job that pays less but is more satisfying or gives you more time for other things. You have those choices because of the amazingly complex division of labor under capitalism, freedom of contract in the labor market and the social productivity to which these things gives rise. The standard neo-marxist counter-argument about people being enslaved by 'false-consciousness' induced by mass-advertising etc., while containing a kernel of truth, is both condescending and overstated. You're lucky if all that you're oppressed by is television!! It's certainly possible with a certain strength of mind and independence of character to resist advertising and the culture of "keeping up with the Joneses". I sometimes think those characteristics are the only necessary pre-requisites for happiness under capitalism. So perhaps all we need is better character training for effective citizenship under capitalism? Then why so much strenuous moaning and grumbling about the problems of capitalism? I don't think the 'dimensions of happiness' argument can explain it. Or at least we might need to specify it in a different way. Let us continue to ponder ...

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