Capitalism: kill or cure?

Battle of Ideas festival 2012, Saturday 20 October, Barbican, London


The Western economic slump is conventionally attributed to a surfeit of capitalism, a market that is too free and insufficiently regulated. The financial crisis of 2008-9 is often assumed to have been caused by the unrestrained greed of bankers, personifying the financial excesses that crashed the economy. This narrative extends into a wider critique of the problems said to result from ‘neoliberal’ ideology. David Cameron, for example, quotes variants of GK Chesterton’s phrase, we have ‘too much capitalism and too few capitalists’, as he distances himself from what is termed crony or irresponsible capitalism. The heartless free market is said to exacerbate social exclusion: too much pay for the rich is said to widen inequality and reduce social mobility; too much consumption and we over-exploit and endanger the planet to the detriment of future generations; too much debt from trying to live off the future produces an economic millstone that condemns us to years of austerity.

Some, however, argue that the state has become increasingly involved in a market that, far from being free, is much more heavily controlled than ever before. In this view, our current problems are really caused by the absence of a genuine capitalism; society is being let down by too few people being prepared to promote the virtues of capitalism, with tomorrow’s entrepreneurs being driven offshore by punitive tax demands, and the business sector choked by health-and-safety legislation and bureaucratic red tape. For such critics, a political climate in which even the Financial Times can appear supportive of the Occupy movement, and in which governments plump for bailing out uncompetitive industries in the interests of short-term political expediency, can hardly be described as overly capitalist. Maybe capitalism actually needs to be freed up to renew itself through ‘creative destruction’; to concentrate on being profitable rather than responsible. Such critics demand a much-reduced role for the state to set the animal spirits of capitalism running free.

So is the market too free or too constrained? Is it as simple as cutting the red tape or must the state continue to take a leading role in kick-starting growth? If it does not, might the reality of contemporary capitalism pose an unacceptable cost to life and liberty? Just how can we manage capitalism in the twenty-first century?

Ferdinand Mount

author, The New Few: or a very British oligarchy; former editor, Times Literary Supplement

Phil Mullan
economist and business manager; author, Creative Destruction: How to start an economic renaissance

Vicky Pryce
board member, Centre for Economics and Business Research; economic advisor, British Chamber of Commerce

Mike Short
senior vice-president, industry affairs, SABMiller

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination