Democracy and Prosperity (part 3)

July 19, 2019

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I have been discussing the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and democracy as described by Torben Iversen and David Soskice. So far I’ve ignored variations among advanced capitalist democracies. But the authors warn against using any one country–such as the United States in discussions of the “Washington Consensus”–as a model for how ACDs have developed or should develop.  The American version of the emerging knowledge economy is only one version, and one that has its origins in a certain kind of history.

Two paths to capitalist democracy

The symbiotic relationship between democracy and capitalism developed along with the industrial economy. One link between the two was human capital development. Industrialization required a labor force with at least some basic skills, such as reading and writing, and that required some commitment to democratic institutions such as the public school.

How was the political order to be broadened to include the opinions and interests of workers? In some countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, pressure from the working class itself played a major role. In others, such as Britain, U.S., France, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the initiative came more from modernizing elites who were challenging the power of agrarian interests unsympathetic to industrialization and democracy.

Those differences had their origins in preindustrial patterns of organization:

[T]he countries in which democratization was eventually the result of working-class pressure were organized locally on a quasi corporatist basis both in towns, with effective guild systems, and in the countryside with a widespread socially rooted semiautonomous peasantry, rural cooperatives, and/or dense rural-urban linkages…. [A]ll of these states were Ständestaaten in the nineteenth century—a system in which the different estates (including organized professions) played a direct role in governing. We therefore refer to the preindustrial political economy of these societies as protocorporatist.

The authors do not give any simple definition of corporatism, but I think of it as the opposite of rugged individualism. While classical British and American liberalism celebrates the self-interested individual, corporatism sees people more as representatives of strong group interests, such as guilds or churches. To make a long story short, the protocorporatist countries provided more fertile ground for the emergence of strong worker organizations.

Things were different in Britain and America:

The elite-project societies, in essence Anglo-Saxon (apart from France, which we discuss separately), functioned quite differently: well-developed property markets with substantial freedom of labor mobility, towns with limited local autonomy, and guild systems which had either collapsed (Britain) or had hardly existed (the settler colonies and the United States, minus the South). We refer to the preindustrial political economy of these societies as protoliberal.

In both kinds of countries, some democratization accompanied industrialization, but it took different directions. In the protocorporatist countries like Denmark and Germany, “effective training systems were built on guild and Ständestaat traditions and provided a large pool of skilled workers, which in turn led to unified labor movements with the capacity to extract democratic concessions from elites.” In the protoliberal countries like Britain and America, “the absence of either guild or Ständestaat traditions led to fragmented labor movements with privileged craft-based unions but no effective training system. Here democracy emerged as the result of industrial elites compelling a reluctant landed aristocracy to accept expansion of education and other public goods required for industrialization.”

Political representation

These two paths to democracy had consequences for electoral systems. Where the working class was highly unified and organized, the more socialist left came to be better represented in politics. The elites and other prosperous members of society might resist democratization until the demands of the working class became too strong to ignore. Then they supported a system of proportional representation rather than winner-take-all elections, to protect themselves against the possibility of a working-class majority. Some of these democratic countries (Germany, Austria, Italy) reverted to authoritarian rule for a time in order to counter a perceived threat from the left, but democracy eventually prevailed.

In countries like the United States and Britain, where organized labor was weaker and more politically divided, majority rule worked better for the modernizing elites and other beneficiaries of industrial capitalism.

In these cases industrial elites had little fear of the working class, but they had a strong incentive to expand public goods, especially education and sanitation, required for the development of an effective labor force (in part to circumvent union control over the crafts). The key obstacles to this project were landowners and more generally conservatives who had no interest in an expansion of public goods and who held strong positions politically, especially at the local level. Majoritarian democracy in these cases essentially emerged as a means to force the landed elites to accept major public investments in education and infrastructure needed for modernization. At the same time, a majoritarian system with a strong bias toward the middle classes effectively excluded the radical left from influence over policies.

Iversen and Soskice see a perfect correlation between the alternative paths to democracy and the electoral systems. The “protocorporatist” countries adopted proportional representation systems that gave worker parties more voice, while the “protoliberal” countries adopted majority-rule systems where major parties had to be more-or-less centrist to win a majority.

Inequality and educational opportunity

Democratic governments of different kinds have adopted many of the same policies to support the growing knowledge sectors of their economies, for example by liberalizing trade and investing more in education. All of them have experienced some increase in inequality as technological innovation has rewarded workers with the right skills and penalized those without them. However, they differ markedly in the extent of the inequality and the associated decline of economic opportunity. The U.S. Council of Economic Advisers introduced the term “Great Gatsby curve” to describe the inverse relationship between economic inequality and intergenerational mobility among countries.

In general, the countries with weak worker organization and majoritarian electoral systems now have relatively high economic inequality and relatively low social mobility. This is true of the United States, United Kingdom and France. Canada and Australia are more average in inequality and social mobility.

In contrast, the countries with strong worker organization and proportional representation systems now have relatively low economic inequality and relatively high social mobility. This is especially true of the Nordic countries: Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Germany is more average in inequality and social mobility.

I think this is an important finding, because it means that even in a world of global, hi-tech competition, countries have choices. Economic growth and global competitiveness do not necessarily require the extravagant executive salaries and tax cuts enjoyed by the American 1%! Nor do they require tossing aside former manufacturing workers without making provision for their economic security or retraining.

One of the biggest factors in economic opportunity is education, and here the international findings reflect badly on the United States. Here the authors use an index of educational opportunity based on such variables as the availability of vocational training, the public spending on preprimary education, the public/private division of higher educational spending, and the age at which students are tracked (since early tracking can restrict opportunity). Among advanced democracies, only Japan and South Korea scored lower than the U.S. on this index. The Nordic countries scored the best.

Many readers may find this puzzling because the U.S. has so many fine schools, especially major research universities. But the quality of individual schools is not the same thing as educational opportunity. A good prep school that serves only the affluent does little to provide upward mobility.

In our majority-rule system, the interests of the downwardly mobile minority are not being well served. Their interests have diverged more sharply from those of more successful workers, making it harder for the traditional party of labor to represent them. This relates very much to the next topic, the threat that populism poses to democracies with high inequality.


Democracy and Prosperity

July 17, 2019

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Torben Iversen and David Soskice. Democracy and Prosperity: Reinventing Capitalism through a Turbulent Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019

The authors are professors of political economy, Torben Iversen at Harvard and David Soskice at the London School of Economics. Their focus is the relationship between capitalism and democratic government in the most advanced capitalist democracies (ACDs).

The authors complain that too much of the recent literature describes that relationship too pessimistically, emphasizing the potential of capitalism to undermine democracy by generating too much inequality. In particular, they summarize Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century as arguing that “the power of capital to accumulate wealth is governed by fundamental economic laws which democratically elected governments can no longer effectively counter. If they try, capital just moves somewhere else.” This may be a little unfair to Piketty, since he does look to democratic government to curb wealth accumulation: “Although the risk is real, I do not see any genuine alternative: If we are to regain control of capitalism, we must bet everything on democracy–and in Europe, democracy on a European scale.” Nevertheless, Piketty does not seem entirely confident that democracy is up to the task, whereas Iversen and Soskice believe that it is.

A symbiotic relationship

Looking back at the last hundred years, the authors argue that “the advanced capitalist democracies, for all their instability and social problems not least at present, have been remarkably resilient and effective over this whole period.” The key to this resilience is the symbiotic relationship between democracy and capitalism. The democratic nation-state pushes advanced capitalism forward, and advanced capitalism reinforces democracy.

The first reason for this symbiotic relationship is that the state has to be strong enough to perform several crucial roles in the economy, if capitalism is to remain vibrant and innovative. The state must require businesses to engage in fair competition, as opposed to tolerating self-serving monopolies. It must require labor to moderate its demands and cooperate with management initiatives. It must invest in such public goods as education, research and infrastructure. It must negotiate changes in the rules to respond to shocks to the system, such as technological change.

A second reason for a symbiotic relationship is that the democratic electorate expects political leaders to manage advanced capitalism effectively. They have a stake in its success, and they expect results that they can see in their own lives. This is especially true of the citizens that the authors call “decisive voters.” These include the employees of advanced capitalist companies, who are usually well-skilled. In addition, they include many voters with aspirations for themselves or their children for upward mobility.

[T]he aspirational vote has a particular relevance in relation to advanced capitalism. By contrast to status-ordered societies, growth in the demand for skilled and educated labor is core to the idea of advanced capitalism as a result of technological change….Hence, while aspirational individuals, parents, and families have always existed to some extent, it is particularly associated with advanced capitalism.

Rather than simply being divided into the opposing interests of capital and labor, advanced democracies have a large middle class of actual or potential beneficiaries of capitalism. They support the system to the extent that they perceive themselves to be benefiting from it. But their incomes are lower than those of the principal owners and managers, and they depend more on public programs and services like public education and Social Security. “Accounting for more than one third of GDP on average, wide-ranging tax-financed middle-class programs ensure that those with high and rising incomes share some of their wealth with the rest of society.” The large middle class is a moderating influence. It doesn’t want the government to radically redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, but it doesn’t want it to let the rich hog the wealth either.

A third reason for the symbiotic relationship is that capital remains “geographically embedded” within nation-states. A common initial reaction to global electronic communications was that geography might not matter much anymore. Work could be done anywhere, perhaps far from established urban centers. Instead, “knowledge-based advanced companies, often multinational enterprises (MNEs) or subsidiaries…are increasingly immobile because they are tied to skill clusters in successful cities, with their value-added embedded in largely immobile, highly educated workforces.” Skilled workers have many good reasons to locate close to others with similar or complementary skills, especially when skills are acquired through face-to-face interaction rather than from some manual. And companies that depend on multi-skilled workforces cannot easily move their entire operation elsewhere, although they can more easily outsource particular low-skill tasks. The dependence of capital on geographically embedded skilled labor gives national and even local governments some power to regulate capital, as well as some incentive to invest in human capital development for the good of the nation or other geographic territory.

For these reasons, democratic governments promote advanced capitalism, but also try to manage it in the interests of a large class of voters. Capitalism thrives, but democracy also works to the extent that voters get a good return on their political investments.

Challenges to the symbiotic relationship

The symbiotic relationship is not a static equilibrium. Capitalism is inherently dynamic, and democracy has to be flexible in order to manage it in the public interest.

Technological change is an important driver of economic change, but not in a simple deterministic way. The authors see a new technology as a political opportunity, something that can be managed for the good of the many, although not usually the all. How political responses to the revolution in information and communications technology (ICT) have shaped the knowledge economy is a central concern of the book.

Another challenge for democratic societies is the recent increase in economic inequality and the decline in economic mobility, which is especially pronounced in the United States. “We see the division between the new knowledge economy and…low-productivity labor markets as a new socioeconomic cleavage that has crystallized along educational lines and a deepening segregation between successful cities and left-behind communities in small towns and rural areas.” The rich have been getting richer and the poor have been left behind, but the impact on the middle class is more complicated. A modest reduction in their share of national income has been accompanied by an absolute increase in income, especially in the more educated middle class. The ultimate impact on democracy is yet to be determined.

A third challenge is political populism, an anti-establishment reaction from those who feel threatened by economic and cultural change. Whether it is a powerful enough reaction to do serious damage to either advanced capitalism or democracy is another issue to be considered. The authors doubt that it is.

Maintaining the equilibrium

Iversen and Soskice acknowledge the tension between democracy and capitalism. “One is based on a principle of equality (‘one person, one vote’), while the other is based on a principle of market power (“one dollar, one vote”). In practice, what democratic electorates support is neither an absolute economic equality inimical to capitalism nor a monopoly of market power inimical to democracy.

“Democracy has a built-in mechanism to limit anti-systemic sentiments.” Voters with a stake in capitalism support the freedom of capitalists to invest in profitable enterprises and keep a lot of their profits, but voters also have a stake in the extension of opportunity so they can earn a good share of the economic benefits.

The historical experience has been that joining the ranks of the advanced capitalist democracies is not easy. Many countries have gotten stuck in a system with powerful capitalist enterprises but weak governments, in which politicians are paid off to protect firms against market competition. On the other hand, where advanced capitalist democracy has become established, it has so far proved to be highly resilient. A long-run perspective on ACDs supports an optimistic view, one that is not too dismayed by recent increases in inequality and reactionary populism.

The next post will discuss the emergence of the knowledge economy and the role of government in that transition.