Liberalism vs. Socialism

Tuesday’s Hardtalk on BBC World News (link) discussed the political, economic and social aspects of communism versus liberal capitalism with Slavoj Zizek ,a philosopher and professor at European Graduate School.

Mr. Zizek discussed the role of liberal capitalism in the modern age. He condemned communism as a failure of the mankind and reaffirmed the liberal capitalism as the greatest invention of the mankind. The topic discussed was the future of liberal capitalism. In arguable words of Mr. Zizek, liberal capitalism, although dynamic and powerful in delivering ends of political and economic freedom, is doomed to fail and it thus requires new politico-economic alternative, divisible at the intersection of market and the state. Despite the interactive debate, I would like to add some points to the discussion which were, in my opinion, either mismatched or misinterpretated.

The evolution of liberal capitalism throughout the course of human history has been emphasized by the expansion of economic, political and human freedom. The greatest inventions in human history were not conducted under dictatorial political regimes. But they were conducted during the age of limited government and free innovation environment. Anytime the powerful wit of government was enforced, innovation and discoveries suffered. Although Mr. Zizek recognizes the failure of totalitarian regimes to stimulate intellectual creativity, his analysis of liberal capitalism inherently neglects its role.

The ability of individuals and firms to pursue their own goals in liberal capitalism is enabled not because of the design of desirable goals but because the free-market capitalism evolved as an undesigned system of ideas under strong rule of law. If liberal capitalism, as Mr. Zizek argues, would be doomed to fail, the individuals never witnessed an unparalleled increase in prosperity and in the 20th and 21st century.

What has distinguished communist political regimes from liberal democracies are the institutions of economic freedom. There is a clear and remarkably positive empirical relationship between economic freedom and standard of living. The experience has shown that political liberty is a neccesary but not sufficient condition for prosperity. Both, the neccesary and sufficient condition for the pursuit of prosperity is economic freedom. Without economic freedom, when governments replace the rule of law with the rule of man, and heavily interfere with free-enterprise activity, these countries are doomed to stagnate. Totalitarian political ideology, claiming to create heaven on earth, has always turned towards the hell on earth.

During the interview, Mr. Zizek argued several times that liberal capitalism can eat itself and fail in a similar vain as communism did. The Soviet Union and the communist block certainly hadn’t failed because of the lack of technological investment, but because communist political ideology erased the system of incentives. Even today, when several politically totalitarian countries sustained high growth rates, the superiority of liberal capitalism is even more obvious. The motion behind the economic miracle of Gulf countries, such as UAE, Bahrain and Qatar, is the institutional arrangement that promotes solid economic performance under robust system of law, market economy and incentives that allocate scarce resources into the most appropriate uses. In the interview, Mr. Zizek described Dubai’s miserable labor conditions as “labor concentration camps” where workers from other countries reside. Although this view sounds very compelling to Marxist philosophers and political thinkers, no government agency forced foreign workers to go to Dubai and work there.

In fact, the economy of United Arab Emirates went through a remarkable restructuring with the creation of the robust financial and service sectors. As productivity growth and capital investment soared in recent decade, wage rates in Dubai are much higher than in other Arab countries. Still in doubt? Ask foreign workers in Dubai how many of them would leave the place and returned to work in their home countries; and why they don’t do that. In addition, in Mr. Zizek’s home country, labor conditions for foreign physical workers mostly from ex-Yugoslavia are not the envy of the world despite the most regulated labor market in the world.

There is also a wide array of case studies from recent economic history that show how economic freedom crucially determines the wealth of nations. In 1955, Hong Kong was a miserable place flooded with refugees from the mainland China. In 1960, Hong Kong’s average income per capita was 28 percent of that in Great Britain. In 1996, it rose to 137 percent of that in Britain. Neither the dictatorial political regimes led to the economic boom in Hong Kong, nor the desire to create heaven on earth. It was a set of strong rule of law of British origin, limited government spending and free markets that propelled Hong Kong to the climb up the ladder.

Mr Zizek arguably enforced the proposition that global financial crisis led to the crisis of liberal capitalism. Although the global financial crisis led to the recession, high unemployment and deflating prices, it certainly has not put the existence of liberal capitalism into doubts.

The origins of the last year’s financial crisis go back to the New Deal and presidential time of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton whose administrations, as benevolent social engineers, enforced numerous acts to boost home ownership. Back in 1996, president Clinton signed Community Reinvestment Act which forced banks to allocate housing borrowings to low-income neighborhoods. In the aftermath, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac securitized risky sub-prime mortgage loans to save banks from default. Meanwhile, they inflated debt-to-equity ratio to 60:1. It means that for deposit of USD, there were 60 USD behind in debt that nobody was willing to bear.

In addition, the monetary policy of the Greenspan era kept low interest rates for too long which causeed an asset bubble and led to the decrease of mortgage values It led to the federal bailout of Bear Sternes and the failure of Lehman Brothers. It also triggered innumerable quests for federal bailout of financial institutions. Thus, it would be foolish to speak about the crisis of liberal capitalism after the financial meltdown. Is liberal capitalism to blame? Of course not. It is rather the greedy political apetite for destructive policies that compromised the stability of the world economy for the sake of short-term political goals.

Mr. Zizek wisely avoided the question of the post-communist politico-economic status of Slovenia after the collapse of Tito’s Yugoslavia. True, Slovenia’s superior economic performance in Yugoslavia was mainly due to its export orientation and higher growth compared to the rest of Yugoslavia. At the beginning of the independence in 1991, Slovenia was, by all measures, the most developed former communist country; far ahead of countries such as Czech Republic, Slovakia and Estonia. Today, Czech Republic virtually caught-up Slovenia’s level of standard of living. In 2008, Czech Republic’s GDP per capita was 94 percent of that in Slovenia. In 1991, it was merely of 60 percent of that in Slovenia. The politicians, of the same “market socialist” politico-economic beliefs as Mr. Zizek, designed the statist economic policy based on high tax rates, state-owned enterprises, weak rule of law and rigid market structures. Today, Slovenia’s economic and political system more closely resembles Russia’s mafia state than a liberal society based on economic freedom, rule of law and limited government. In a great part, thanks to the political ideology of “market socialism.”

2 comments to Liberalism vs. Socialism

  • ben

    “We need to invent some new form of collective activity which will be neither market nor state bureaucracy.” – The interview part 3, 3:40.

    I think you are building up a straw man with regard to Zizek’s approach to economic freedom. He would agree with you that economic freedom has been a good thing in many ways. But he is trying to make the point that in its current form (and no, nobody here is of the opinion that it is a perfectly free market currently) liberal capitalism has unsustainable flaws: all-powerful markets systems cannot be the whole answer. His “new form of collective activity” doesn’t necessarily exclude markets, and it certainly doesn’t argue for more standard government control.

    Also, Zizek agreed in the interview that “labor concentration camps” was indeed a bad name for the economic segregation in Dubai. Your accusations to that end seem disingenuous. Why don’t you instead address the problems that he brings up, namely that the workers form an underclass, and the reason they are there is because their own economies have failed them? Just because a worker chooses to work in a particular job doesn’t meet the conditions of that job are right and fair. (and as Zizek would argue, doesn’t mean that the conditions are not a large system problem which will probably get worse, and show how unbridled capitalism is inherently flawed)

  • tim

    Well done Ben in your reply. Ideologues on all sides think their “black box” of tricks has all the answers. Zizek just challenges people by reworking their questions – he does not necessarily proffer answers. He is asking people to wake up to their existential reality.

    To Rok to say: “replace the rule of law with the rule of man” is totally illusory and speaks volumes of the mindset followed – all law is based on human input nothing outside our social relations.

    Thanks to the likes of Zizek for flushing out these disingenuous discussions

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