Are state-led economies better?
This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.
As Europe’s leaders struggle to restore confidence in the single currency and America’s economy limps ahead at a painfully slow pace, China’s economy continues to power forward at its now characteristically strong clip. For the past three decades, China has been the world’s fastest growing economy—and within the next several years, the People’s Republic will overtake the United States as the world’s largest. Some economists have even argued that, measured by purchasing-power parity, China has already pulled ahead. Such prognostications, accurate or not, have led to dire warnings that liberal capitalism’s best days are behind it, that the future lies with authoritarian market managers who are able to relocate populations and move mountains by decree. For the moment, at least, state-managed capitalism appears to be triumphant.
Such appearances, however, are misleading. The appeal of state capitalism lies in its ability to withstand the occasional crises that afflict market systems, thus shielding the general population from politically inconvenient disruptions. It is a system in which the state uses state-owned enterprises, national champion firms, sovereign wealth funds, and politically loyal banks to dominate the process of domestic wealth creation. To be sure, this is not communism; significant segments of state capitalist economies are in private hands. But the state plays the largest role in ensuring that market forces serve political ends—by ensuring that, profitable or not, businesses invest in projects that bolster social stability and protect the ruling elite’s political control.
China is not the only state capitalist economy producing impressive results. As the Arab world continues to contend with the risks of political turmoil, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have stockpiled the cash they need to maintain stability by controlling much of the wealth produced by national oil companies. Even some emerging democracies have begun to flirt with limited forms of managed capitalism. Brazil’s private sector remains crucial for the country’s expansion, but its government leans on state-owned energy firm Petrobras and privately owned mining champion Vale to help create jobs. President Dilma Rousseff’s government won’t milk cash from these firms as President Hugo Chávez has done with state-owned oil company PDVSA in Venezuela, but Petrobras is already at risk of becoming a much larger, less efficient, and thus less profitable company.
State control is not the future of capitalism. It is a dead end from which China will have to free itself if it is truly destined to dominate the world economy. As a system and by design, state capitalism ensures that wealth creation does not threaten the leadership’s hold on political power. Its ability to stimulate growth and general prosperity is a secondary benefit. Forced to choose between public wealth and political survival, state capitalists will always protect their own interests first. In China, as elsewhere, commercial activity depends on access to information, and the Internet provides the best and most efficient access to it. Yet if the Internet threatens to enable popular resistance to China’s authoritarian government, and if political officials have the means to shut the Internet down, even temporarily, they will do just that.
State capitalism’s greatest weakness lies in its intolerance of “creative destruction,” a process that invests liberal capitalism with vital self-regenerating momentum. The liberal capitalist model makes it possible for the workers, resources, and ideas invested in a dying industry to spontaneously recombine in novel configurations to produce goods and services that satisfy emerging demand. But the economic engineers of state capitalism fear any form of destruction that develops beyond their control. This is why state-owned companies, which build influence within government over time, often succeed in resisting the need to adapt to changing times.
Then there is the question of openness. Within autocratic state capitalist systems, government-owned companies like China National Petroleum Corporation and some of the Arab world’s sovereign wealth funds shun the transparency that long-term resilience and adaptability demand. This opacity can benefit a country’s ruling elite by hiding unsuccessful investment decisions, but it is very harmful for the system’s long-term health. When such institutions can hide their failures, they are free to inflict much more lasting harm than they otherwise could.
Managed capitalism also falls short when it comes to exploiting innovation, though government-directed investment can play an important role in the development of new technologies. The Internet arose from a U.S. government subsidized defense project, but it was profit-driven companies that developed and reimagined the Internet and thus transformed the world. History shows that over time state officials never value assets and allocate resources as efficiently as market forces can.
Even in China, state officials understand that citizens are the engine of economic vitality. That is why the state has embarked on an historic and ambitious plan to shift wealth from China’s largest companies to the country’s consumers. China’s leaders know that the next generation of economic growth must be less dependent on exports to Europeans and Americans; creating domestic consumer demand is crucial. Thus the process of empowering Chinese consumers will undermine state capitalism’s appeal even within the country that has made this system so seductive.