There has been some debate below Friday’s post about to what extent being an economic left-winger is a valid choice. We all know that socialism is not a successful way to achieve economic growth. It is less widely accepted, but I think still true, that the best way for a country to become rich is following an unfettered free-market and free-trade policy. For example, before 1990 India followed an economic policy that was centrally planned and protectionist. This resulted in an average growth rate of 3% per annum – respectable for an industrialised country but disastrous where it could not even keep pace with population increases. After over a decade of free market reform, growth is up to 10% a year and ordinary Indians are finally getting richer. Some are getting extremely rich and herein lies the left-winger’s gripe.
To be economically left wing is, I think, to value social justice and fairness more highly than economic growth. A left-winger would sacrifice some of the gains from an unfettered free market to even up the benefits. There are two powerful arguments in favour of this approach. The first is that, beyond a certain level, increased wealth does not seem to make us happier. Indeed, people are likely to be made unhappy by a neighbour who is clearly prospering more than they are (what we in England call having to keep up with the Joneses). Pop-psychologist Oliver James has written a couple of books claiming being rich has actually made us miserable but as he has declined to provide any evidence for his assertions, they must stand unproven.
The second powerful argument for the left winger is not one that many of them are inclined to make. It concerns equal opportunities. It is true that the best way to create opportunities for those willing and able to take them is an unfettered free market. However, many are either unwilling or cannot take their chances. The left will blame lack of education or other social disadvantages for this, but the real reason is the genetic lottery whereby many people do not have the raw brainpower or determination to give things a go. Thus, an unfettered market will always fail some people who are not, through their own efforts, able to do much about it. This might be what Jesus, whom we must at least credit with a shrewd idea of human nature, meant when he said that the poor would always be with us. He also blesses them and charges the rest of us with looking after them. Thus, I think it is possible to construct a left wing and Christian argument against leaving the market to its own devices.
Where do I stand? With a billion critically poor, I am not sure we have the luxury to worry about inequality. The quickest way to generate the trillions of dollars needed to lift the poor above the subsistence line is through global markets and free trade. That this money will end up very unevenly distributed is not, for the moment, the most pressing problem. My argument is not with those on the left whose priorities are different from mine, but with those who go on pretending that capitalism-lite can do the job better at wealth creation than capitalism.
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