“If you bound the arms and legs of gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps, weighed him down with chains, threw him in a pool and he sank, you wouldn’t call it a ‘failure of swimming’. So, when markets have been weighted down by inept and excessive regulation, why call this a ‘failure of capitalism’?”
That view, expressed by the George Mason University professor Peter Boettke, found much favour among the free-market eggheads who assembled in New York this weekend to discuss the financial crisis. Up to now the Keynesians have made the running. Greed, they say, has brought down the world economy. Only massive public spending can revive it. And with the Masters of the Universe now gasping on the floor, the G20 summit in April will give them a final kick in the tax havens. That’ll teach them.
But now the believers in free markets and small government have regrouped. The meeting was called by the Mont Pelerin Society, founded in 1947 to preserve liberal ideas. Early members included Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek and George Stigler. Their view – as expressed by The Ascent of Money author Niall Ferguson – is that capitalism isn’t dead, though the global banking regulations embodied in Basle 2 should be. It took regulators ten years to perfect Basle 2, but far from making things safer for bank customers, it pushed banks to the brink of ruin.
When the banks discovered that their “assets” were riddled with junk, everyone ran scared. Nobody knew exactly how “toxic” it all was, so the banks couldn’t unload it on to anyone. Their “assets” became worthless. Under the Basle rules, they had to stop lending. Hello, credit crunch.
“This is a balance-sheet crisis,” the billionaire and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes told the gathering. “If you had to sell your house today, you wouldn’t get much for it. That doesn’t mean it’s worthless.” Banks are largely solvent – it’s regulation that threatens to bankrupt them.
“We need to sell off, split up or close down the zombie banks,” says Bill Beach, senior policy boffin at Washington’s Heritage Foundation. Next, he says, we need to encourage business, not load it, like Michael Phelps, with burdens. That means lower taxes, particularly business taxes, and less of the regulation that discouraged firms employing people.
Occasional crises are the cost of the prosperity that entrepreneurial capitalism brings. Try to eliminate risk, and you eliminate entrepreneurship itself.