Why Soros is biting the hand that fed him

Suddenly, the market economy is under attack. It has been the dominant ideology of perhaps 95 per cent of the world's population since the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and its satellites, the introduction of economic reforms in China and the greater use of market signals in India, Latin America and much of Africa. Go back to 1979 and the proportion was about 40 per cent. So the last two decades are surely unique: they have seen the most rapid conquest of the world by an ideology that has ever happened in human history.

Therefore it would be astounding if there were not some reaction. In the last few days there has been growing evidence of just that. Perhaps the most notable came from the fabled financier George Soros. Writing in the United States magazine Atlantic Monthly, he argued that: "The arch enemy of an open society is no longer the communist threat but the capitalist one." It was wrong, he suggested, "to make survival of the fittest a leading principle in a civilised society".

It is easy to jeer. George Soros has made his pile of about pounds 6bn not by producing products or services people want to buy, but by speculation: by exploiting one of the less agreeable aspects of the market system. But he touches a nerve. Other evidence of his concerns come from the labour unrest in France where "globalisation" - and in particular competition from lower-wage economies - is being blamed for rising unemployment. Still more evidence comes from the even more serious labour unrest in South Korea, the sort of newly industrialised country competing, apparently successfully, against French industry and supposedly one of the main beneficiaries of globalism.

Meanwhile, here in Britain public support for privatisation, which was consistently strong through the 1980s, has waned to such an extent that more people now favour further nationalisation than favour further privatisation.

So some kind of reassessment is in train and it seems likely to continue for several years. How might the argument develop?

It is easiest to split the impact of the market economy into two categories: the way it has changed relations between countries and those within them. To over-simplify, if the market revolution has tended to reduce differences between countries it has increased them within countries.

To see the first, glance at the charts. In 1984, what we still think of as the developing world accounted for only 34 per cent of world output, against 57 per cent from the developed world. (The expression "transition countries" is shorthand for the former Soviet Union and its satellites.) Ten years later the balance had shifted to 40:55. By 2004 the developing world will, according to these World Bank estimates, have passed the output of the developed countries.

The paradox here is that the intellectual victory of the West's economic system has meant that the West has lost its comparative advantage. The playing field has been levelled and the new players will shortly overtake the old ones. Globalisation, in this context, means a loss of influence for countries that have for several generations considered themselves top dogs. It is hardly surprising that it has attracted opprobrium.

Within countries, though, the dominance of the market ideology is being blamed for the rise in inequality. So much attention has been focused on this that it is pointless to trawl over that ground here, except to point out that this rise in inequality is almost universal throughout the developed world. In some countries it has principally taken the form of rising wage differentials, while in others it has been a rise in unemployment. Some countries have been more effective than others at blunting its harshest effects, but the pressure is universal. And the rise in inequality is not just in incomes. There have been other changes in economic relationships: people who save have tended to benefit at the expense of people who borrow.

So, if that is the problem, where are the solutions? Where does the debate go now?

As far as relationships between countries are concerned, I suspect that we will see a longish period of probably quite ill-tempered debate about the rules of the game. If countries wish to benefit from the open regime in world trade and world finance, they will have to submit to certain disciplines.

One obvious area of tension is between China and its main trading partners in the West, in particular the US. The States has been prepared to open its doors to imports from Japan and South Korea, despite policies in these countries which in practice restricted its exports. But both those countries were allies in the cold war and were, in any case, always going to be smaller economies than the US. China, by contrast, looks set to overtake the US in the total size of its economy during the first or second decades of the next century.

Seen in this context, the very large trade imbalances between China and the US appear unsustainable; so, too, do the very different labour standards. These are already hot issues. Expect them to become hotter, with increasing pressure from the US on both these fronts but with increasing concern about the imposition of what will be branded "western values" on China and other countries in East Asia.

The great question, of course, is whether an ill-tempered debate becomes damaging to trade and finance. There is no way of knowing the answer but at least we can see the outlines of the argument.

It is, I suspect, harder to see the outlines of the argument that will take place within countries. That might seem strange, for there is plenty of "back to the post-war golden age" criticism of the roughness of 1990s capitalism. But that is surely nostalgia. No-one seriously believes that governments in any Western democracy will go back to a policy of nationalisation. The fault-line, if there is one, is between people who argue that countries should race on with the process of redefining the role of the state, and those who believe that further reform should wait awhile to allow a pause for breath. In any case, many people who are critical of the harshness of the market, are also suspicious of "top-down" ways of buffering its adverse effects.

So what happens? What is the intelligent response to George Soros?

There is no quick fix, no single simple solution; but here are some possible pointers. One is that sensitive, light, effective regulation will become an increasingly important area where countries can achieve competitive advantage. We have given a much larger role to the markets to order our society; and those markets function best when they are properly regulated. It is a myth that there is an inevitable conflict of interest between practitioners and regulators. Self-regulation of financial markets grew in the last century because practitioners knew that the customers demanded higher ethical standards. Learning to regulate well will become tremendously important.

A second pointer is that the growth of the market's role demands changes in personal behaviour. Most obviously, individuals will need to save more. As this happens, people will be better able to cope with uncertainty.

A third pointer is that governments will be able to find efficiencies in the way they organise their own activities. For a generation now, companies have been under great competitive pressure to lift their game: to provide better goods or services more efficiently. Now a similar pressure is being placed on the public sector and it, too, will respond by lifting its game.

Finally, while in many ways economic structures seem less stable - people change jobs more frequently, for example - financial structures have become more stable. We have returned to steady prices. More constant interest rate and currency movements will tend to follow.

People like George Soros will not find it as easy to make fortunes from speculation over the next generation as they did in the last.

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