Monday, June 4, 2012


by Richard A. Posner

The Becker-Posner Blog

June 3, 2012

I agree wholeheartedly with Becker that capitalism is a superior economic system to any other that has been tried, the others being mainly socialism and communism. The best evidence for this is that out of the 194 countries in the world, I can think of only two that are not capitalist—Cuba, which however is moving slowly in the capitalist direction, and North Korea, the greatest economic failure on the planet.

But this statistic indicates that capitalism is a necessary condition of economic success rather than a sufficient condition. Many of the world’s countries, though capitalist, are basket cases—not as badly off as North Korea, but plenty badly off. Per capita incomes in rich capitalist countries such as the United States, Canada, Germany, Britain, and Japan greatly exceed per capita incomes in poor capitalist countries, which are the majority of countries.

So the big question is, given capitalism, what else does a country need in order to prosper? We know that it doesn’t need abundant natural resources or a large population. But it needs a legal and political system that protects property rights, allows a large degree of economic freedom, minimizes corruption, controls harmful externalities (like pollution) and subsidizes beneficial ones (like education), distinguishes between equality of opportunity (which it promotes) and equality of incomes (which it promotes only to the extent of combating poverty), welcomes and assimilates skilled and wealthy immigrants, and (related to protecting economic freedom) avoids public ownership or control of economic enterprises. To create and maintain such a legal and political system a country also requires a culture of respect for business success, of competition and risk-taking, and of consumerism—since, as Keynes argued, consumption drives production.

Such a combination is difficult to achieve; no nation has achieved it. The variance across nations in culture and in institutional structure is very great, and determines the relative economic success of the different nations.

Since there is so much variance across capitalist countries—so much that can go wrong with a capitalist system because of the complex institutional structure and social culture that capitalism requires if it is to be maximally successful in contributing to social welfare—we need to avoid complacency. Complacency was a major factor in the surprising economic collapse that began in September 2008, a collapse the consequences of which are still very much with us.