Dangers of worshipping false god of self-regulating markets


OPINION:The events of recent times require us all to reconsider the economic choices facing us, writes DAVID BEGG

FOR THE last 25 years we have been told that the twin phenomena of globalisation and the financial system underpinning it are unalterable. Free markets, we were told, are possessed of an inherent and irresistible logic and the state must not interfere. Economists, politicians, academics, commentators and business people of the neoliberal persuasion foreclosed all debate about the subject.

But that liberal dogma has now been turned on its head by the need for massive state intervention in the banking system, not least in the United States, the very citadel of capitalism.

Let us be absolutely clear. This crisis was caused by greed and recklessness in our own country, on Wall Street, in London and in other major financial centres. Senior executives permitted speculation on a huge scale on investments they ill understood. Speculators have exacerbated the serious rises in fuel, food and raw materials.

The losers are many and include workers in the industry and, more generally, pensioners, families, firms seeking investment capital, and all of us as taxpayers now bailing out banks. It will take years to recover the money - if we manage to do so - and our future ability to fund high-quality public services is now jeopardised.

Friedrich Hayek, widely recognised as the progenitor of neoliberalism, published his most famous book, The Road to Serfdom, in 1944. By coincidence a Hungarian socialist, Karl Polanyi, published The Great Transformationin the same year. While Polanyi's work celebrated the New Deal in the US precisely because it placed limits on the influence of market forces, Hayek's book insisted that the New Deal was the road to perdition.

Although he identified himself as a socialist, Polanyi had profound differences with economic determinism of all varieties, including Marxism. In the cold war era there was little room for Polanyi's nuanced and complex arguments.

Hayek, on the other hand, went on to be a tireless advocate of market liberalism in Britain and the US. He inspired such influential followers as Milton Friedman and was responsible for the policies of deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation pursued by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Over time, they deconstructed the last vestiges of the New Deal, leaving us with the catastrophe we have today.

Polanyi's central thesis is that self-regulating markets never work. To his mind their deficiencies are so great that government intervention becomes necessary, and that the pace of change is of central importance in determining these consequences.

Polanyi's great attraction lies in his concern to advance both freedom and social justice. He believes that allowing the market to control the economic system was a fundamental error because it meant no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are then embedded in the economic system.

The most obvious manifestation of this in practice is the treatment of labour, which is really human beings, as a commodity. Polanyi points out that human beings are not a product made for sale. Nevertheless, upon the fiction that labour is a commodity is the whole market system organised. It is therefore based on a lie.

Unfortunately, under the pressure of globalisation, Europe has been moving in the direction of the US model and, in truth, Ireland and Britain are part of that Anglo-Saxon construct. But the events of recent times require us all to reconsider.

The problem we have to transcend is that many intelligent people have put their faith in the idea of self-regulating markets as piously as others put their trust in God.

Now that this god has failed, perhaps people will have the freedom to see things more clearly again, reclaim responsibility and organise the future in more promising terms.

• David Begg is deneral secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and is a governor of The Irish TimesTrust