Retro Book Reviews: A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity by Luigi Zingales (Basic Books, 2012)

University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales’s book A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, attempts to frame free-market policies in terms that appeal to populists, who generally oppose free markets.

I first read A Capitalism for the People not long after it came out. At the time I wrote:

I am wary of populism in all its forms, from Ancient Roman populares to William Jennings Bryan, right on up through John Edwards and John McCain. But if Zingales’s approach succeeds at making thorough illiberals a little more liberal at the margin, he will have done a valuable public service.

Zingales’s timing was prescient. As the historian Stephen Davies and my colleague Iain Murray have argued, much of the world has gone through a fundamental political realignment over the past decade. Since Zingales’s book was published, a worldwide populist wave put in office politicians such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and America’s Donald Trump.

Did Zingales come up with a viable strategy for making such illiberal populists more liberal at the margin? That is a difficult question, but the answer is probably no. That isn’t Zingales’s fault—it’s because liberalism and populism are fundamentally incompatible. Populism is about conflict, while market liberalism is about cooperation. It is impossible to meaningfully combine them.

Populism is tricky to define because it lacks a common set of policies or principles, the way conservatives, progressives, and liberals do. Conservatives will reliably support policies that increase social order, such as law enforcement, national defense, and faith-based initiatives. Progressives will reliably support policies intended to reduce inequality, such as social spending programs, minimum wages, and progressive taxation. Liberals will reliably support policies that increase openness, tolerance, and dynamism, such as free markets, free trade, and deregulation.

Populists have been known to support almost any combination of any of these issues, even when they contradict one another. Populists can come from the right, the left, or nearly any combination of the two.

So what do populists rally around, if they lack defining principles or policies? Populism is about the conflict between us and them. It pits regular people against elites, whether in media, academia, or business. It pits one’s fellow countrymen against foreigners, or one’s coreligionists against outside faiths, or one race against another. It pits Republicans against Democrats.

Populism is more of a mindset, or more accurately, an emotionset. Populism comes more from the amygdala rather than the cerebral cortex, which is why it will always be with us to some degree.

A strong sense of in-groups and out-groups gave a survival advantage in hunter-gatherer times, as members of small nomadic bands helped each other out. Their hostility to outsiders improved their defenses. Thinking of people as “Other” also reduced moral qualms about taking food and mates from outsiders, giving another survival advantage in harsh conditions.

We moderns live in different circumstances, but genetically we are still the same people. Populism—and its cousins such as nationalism, socialism, racism, and identity politics—are all different applications of our hunter-gatherer instincts to modern conditions.

Who the outsiders are differs by circumstance; that there are outsiders is the common populist theme. That is why populists can have no coherent policies or philosophies, yet still have something important in common—us against them. The liberal project of preventing the Hobbesian war of each against all is about keeping that universal tendency in check.

So that is what liberals are up against—roughly 95 percent of human history, and millions of years of evolution before that.

Zingales’s contribution is a bit of judo—using the populists’ own tactics against them. If you can frame a policy in an us-against-them way, some populists might warm up to it.

Many populists favor trade protectionism as a way to shelter domestic industries from what they perceive as “unfair” foreign competition. But there are other ways to frame the same issue. If the “them,” rather than foreigners, turns out to be politically connected industries that profit by hurting “us,” the consumers, by lobbying for price-raising tariffs, then some populists could be convinced to oppose trade protectionism and other forms of cronyism. The political strategy is neutral on the policy; it’s about the framing.

But this lack of philosophical mooring leaves Zingales’s argument vulnerable. For example, he argues that globalization increases inequality, which is a classic populist grievance—thinking in terms of ratios, rather than how people are actually doing. As to that more important question, people around the world are doing better than in any other era of history—poverty rates, life expectancy, disease, violence, air and water pollution, and other measures of well-being are nearly all getting better, in both rich and poor countries. Zingales seems to think in terms of conflict, as a populist would, instead of in terms of cooperation. Yet, the beneficial results of the latter are what show up in the data.

Zingales argues on page 38 that “the most powerful argument in favor of antitrust law is one that is rarely made: antitrust law reduces the political power of firms.” That is not the case; regulatory capture is rampant in antitrust. Large companies often welcome antitrust enforcement and other regulation if it puts up barriers to entry against smaller competitors. For instance, Facebook can afford to spend millions of dollars complying with new content moderation regulations as part of an antitrust settlement; the small startup that could someday overtake Facebook cannot. Antitrust doesn’t fight cronyism, it provides more opportunities for it.

For Zingales, the problem is that while his populist framing of antitrust law is spot-on, it is just as easy to give identical framing to the opposite side of the issue. How do you decide which side is better on the merits?

Zingales makes a similar slip on page 51 when he argues that “One beneficial side effect of the Glass-Steagall Act, as with most of the other banking regulations, was to fragment the banking sector and reduce the financial industry’s political power.” In reality, Glass-Steagall made the banking sector more vulnerable by forcing banks to put their eggs in fewer baskets. It also reduced competition among banks, which could compete in either commercial banking or investment banking, but not both.

When various companies in an industry create non-compete agreements like Glass-Steagall did, it often results in an antitrust case. Yet in the case of Glass-Steagall, Congress passed a law forbidding competition.

While that ban went away in 1999, benefiting consumers, banking regulations as a whole have continued to grow. Rules aimed at boosting home ownership for political reasons required banks to take on more risks. When the resulting bubble blew up, unleashing the 2008 financial crisis, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank financial law in response, which exacerbated the “too big to fail” problem it was intended to solve. Yet, it was the repeal of Glass-Steagall that got much of the blame, including from Zingales.

Again, it is easy to make populist arguments both for and against bank bailouts. Bailout supporters can say that bailouts are necessary to protect households’ savings against big banks’ irresponsible behavior. Bailout opponents can argue that bailouts are another example of cronyism. They create moral hazard and make banks even more dependent on their political connections.

In the end, it still comes down to merits and principles. With a little creativity, almost any issue can be framed in populist terms. That means liberals still need to be careful about choosing which issues to frame in an us-vs.-them way for populist audiences.

Zingales is more careful about this in his concluding chapter, which draws out the distinction between being pro-business and pro-market, and comes out strong against cronyism. He writes on page 255:

What would also help minimize cronyism is not a plethora of new government regulations (they are the first to be captured) but a village of potential whistleblowers.

His book would have been better had he applied his advice consistently.

In the decade since A Capitalism for the People was published, Zingales has drawn some company in framing market-liberal policies in populist terms. Last month, George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, who is openly pro-liberal and anti-populist, compiled two lists of populist deregulation proposals, ranging from ending airport security theater to deregulating shower heads. Arnold Kling, another market-liberal economist, writes regularly about populism and its framing in his Substack blog. CEI founder Fred Smith has a longstanding interest in what he calls value-based communication, of which appealing to populists is a part.

Will Zingales’s framing strategy help to improve policy in the current populist moment? Maybe a little bit at the margin, but it won’t help with substantive change, because the root problem is populism itself. It is at the cultural level, and can’t be fixed by liberalizing a regulation here and there. It takes active engagement, using insights from Zingales, and from Fred Smith, Caplan, Kling, Aaraon Wildavsky, and other thinkers. It takes civility and listening.

Fittingly, it takes cooperation, rather than conflict, to convince people that cooperation is better than conflict for achieving prosperity and security. It is possible to somewhat defuse today’s polarized politics, but it is a long-run process that takes ongoing effort and keeping calm.

By listening, engaging, and appealing to populists on their own terms, liberals can help convince people that an open society is a better place to live than a closed one, that principles are more important than parties or political personalities, and that long-term governing institutions are more important than winning this year’s election. The values of July 4 must prevail over those of January 6.

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