Friday, August 6, 2010

Leviathan Inc

August 5, 2010

Listen carefully, and you may detect a giant sucking sound across the rich world. In the 1990s this was the sound protectionists in the United States thought (wrongly) would accompany jobs disappearing to Mexico as a result of a free-trade deal. This time, too, there are big worries about jobs and growth, but the source of the noise is different, and real enough: it comes from the tentacles of the state, reaching into more and more areas of business in an effort to get the economy moving. It is the sound of Leviathan Inc.

Politicians are reviving the notion that intervening in individual industries and companies can drive growth and create jobs (see article). It is not just the usual suspects—although it is true that France, the land of Colbert, is busy taking stakes in toy manufacturers, video-sharing websites and fallen national champions. Elsewhere in Europe, from Berlin to Brussels, demand for industrial policy is back. Japan’s new government is responding to what it sees as the increasingly aggressive policies of foreign competitors by deepening the links between business and the state. In America Barack Obama, the effective owner of General Motors and a chunk of Wall Street, has turned his back on the laissez-faire approach of the past: a strategic-industries initiative is under way.