Why the defensive tone?

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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.


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