THE FUTURE OF CAPITALISM
Facing the New Anxieties
By Paul Collier
248 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $29.99.
You might expect that Paul Collier, a noted development economist at Oxford who has devoted most of his professional life to the uplift of the global poor, would see himself as a “citizen of the world.” But that’s not quite right. Collier grew up in Sheffield, a once-flourishing English steel town that provided working-class families like his own with a modicum of prosperity and stability, and that has since struggled in the face of import competition and the loss of many of its most ambitious citizens to London and other dynamic cities. He attributes his prodigious accomplishments in no small part to the cooperative character of the community, and the nation, in which he was raised.
National loyalty, far from being inimical to a more just and decent world in which all, including the world’s poorest, can flourish, is seen by Collier as a firmer foundation for global cooperation than abstract cosmopolitanism, which all too often serves as a mask for unenlightened self-interest. The question animating his small but wide-ranging book “The Future of Capitalism” is whether the sense of rootedness that so defined the Britain of his youth can be restored.
Postwar Britain was, in Collier’s affectionate account, a society undergirded by a dense web of reciprocal obligations, which in turn gave rise to a strong sense of shared identity. A widespread belief that the fates of the cities and the provinces were tied together, and that the affluent and established had a stake in cultivating the talents of young strivers like himself, justified large increases in public investment. It also infused the sensibilities of many corporate executives, who tempered the pursuit of short-term profit with a concern for the long-term prosperity of the communities they served.
But more recently, Collier argues, these reciprocal obligations unraveled as class divides, separating the educated from the less educated, and regional divides, separating dense metropolitan areas that attracted a critical mass of educated professionals from smaller cities and towns that did not, have strained national loyalties. Liberated from the moral constraints of earlier generations, Collier says, families have grown more fragmented, employers have embraced a more short-term outlook and the metropolitan rich have come to look upon their less well-off fellow-nationals with disdain.
At the same time, the centrist social democratic ideal of Collier’s youth, rooted in the habits of civic cooperation and mutual aid, gave way, on the one hand, to the arid utilitarianism of economists and, on the other, to the rights-oriented liberalism of lawyers who encouraged people to understand themselves as victims seeking redress rather than as citizens seeking solidarity. Today, confidence in the competence of the economists and the righteousness of the lawyers has waned. As a result, the rich democracies find themselves lurching between extremes of left and right, vulnerable to charismatic populists offering the false promise of a return to an unrecoverable past.
How does Collier intend to repair the bonds of affection in the rich democracies? “The Future of Capitalism” is rife with inventive proposals, including the creation of a new international body that would coordinate the diplomatic efforts of the world’s great powers; reforming corporate boards; establishing socioeconomically integrated schools built around distinctive “belief systems” and much else. The most controversial of Collier’s prescriptions will, given his likely audience, undoubtedly be those measures aimed at curbing the economic advantages flowing to the people he describes as the “smug skilled.” To address the gulf separating the Londons and the Sheffields of the world, he proposes taxing educated metropolitan professionals more steeply than their equally well-educated provincial counterparts, a policy he justifies by pointing to the fact that the former earn more simply by dint of living in proximity to others like them, not by dint of superior skill. Though I wouldn’t endorse Collier’s manifesto in every detail, his “hard centrism” has much to offer.