In the past few weeks many have pointed a finger at the “failure of capitalism and deregulation.” Economist Steven Horwitz of St. Lawrence University takes on that argument head on an open letter to his friends on the Left:
One of the biggest confusions in the current mess is the claim that it is the result of greed. The problem with that explanation is that greed is always a feature of human interaction. It always has been. Why, all of a sudden, has greed produced so much harm? And why only in one sector of the economy? After all, isn’t there plenty of greed elsewhere? Firms are indeed profit seekers. And they will seek after profit where the institutional incentives are such that profit is available. In a free market, firms profit by providing the goods that consumers want at prices they are willing to pay. (My friends, don’t stop reading there even if you disagree – now you know how I feel when you claim this mess is a failure of free markets – at least finish this paragraph.) However, regulations and policies and even the rhetoric of powerful political actors can change the incentives to profit. Regulations can make it harder for firms to minimize their risk by requiring that they make loans to marginal borrowers. Government institutions can encourage banks to take on extra risk by offering an implicit government guarantee if those risks fail. Policies can direct self-interest into activities that only serve corporate profits, not the public.
Many of you have rightly criticized the ethanol mandate, which made it profitable for corn growers to switch from growing corn for food to corn for fuel, leading to higher food prices worldwide. What’s interesting is that you rightly blamed the policy and did not blame greed and the profit motive! The current financial mess is precisely analogous.
No free market economist thinks “greed is always good.” What we think is good are institutions that play to the self-interest of private actors by rewarding them for serving the public, not just themselves. We believe that’s what genuinely free markets do. Market exchanges are mutually beneficial. When the law messes up by either poorly defining the rules of the game or trying to override them through regulation, self-interested behavior is no longer economically mutually beneficial. The private sector then profits by serving narrow political ends rather than serving the public. In such cases, greed leads to bad consequences. But it’s bad not because it’s greed/self-interest rather because the institutional context within which it operates channels self-interest in socially unproductive ways.
This, my friends, is exactly what has brought us to the mess we are now in.