The Housing Chronicles Blog: "Creative Destruction" gets sorely tested

Friday, May 29, 2009

"Creative Destruction" gets sorely tested

Economist Joseph Shumpeter's theory that something called 'creative destruction' is in full force these days, impacting everything from real estate brokerages and newspapers to the American auto industry and even government. Against the grip of a painful recession, it's easy to dismiss the consequences of creative destruction as too much to bear, but in the long run, it's not only necessary for capitalism to thrive, but also for liberty as well. From an interesting opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal: was Schumpeter who worried more than any other modern economist about what might be called the fragile condition of capitalism. He did so having lived through the economic horrors of Weimar, witnessed the terror of Soviet-style political economy, experienced the Depression -- and seen the chaos of World War II. Plenty of destruction, to be sure. His life's work concentrated on entrepreneurs renewing the economy through what he called "creative destruction."

If Schumpeter were alive today, he would surely ask, What caused this crisis? And, is this kind of scandal or drama endemic to the nature of capitalism itself? While a lot of attention has been given to the first question, I want to focus on the more ominous second one. Namely, how to save capitalism from a potentially fatal reaction to this crisis.

We need to remember that Schumpeter embraced capitalism not as a reaction or as the second-best solution to the unproductive reality of utopian economic planning. Rather, he saw capitalism as the foundation of two complementary forces. The first was economic expansion. The second was its role in protecting individual freedom...

As a general rule, only capitalism can create wealth and liberty at the same time. And, of course, capitalism can expand welfare faster than any other social or economic order has ever done.

However, given the pressures of the current crisis, a future where growth and freedom continue to jointly secure each other and anchor civil society is not assured. It seems that when economic contractions occur in their inevitable, yet unpredictable way, the critique of capitalism itself becomes more powerful and shrill...

Since the New Deal, Americans have come to see government as somehow the ultimate protector of their financial welfare. In reality, though, the evidence of the U.S. government behaving in this way during the New Deal is thin to say the least. Although it is largely forgotten now, much of the government's action during the Depression actually had a marginal impact on individual lives. Monetary expansion and technological innovation boosted the economy, while the "second" depression of 1937-1938 is widely understood as having been induced by Roosevelt's attempt to manipulate credit markets.

So what about the ultimate Schumpeterian challenge: Can capitalism be saved? France's President Nicolas Sarkozy in October 2008 proposed a brilliant formulation. He said: "The financial crisis is not the crisis of capitalism. It is the crisis of a system that has distanced itself from the most fundamental values of capitalism, which betrayed the spirit of capitalism."

No doubt, in the face of the continuing financial crisis, entrepreneurial capitalism is threatened. All over the world, people are giving greater emphasis to personal security. Their taste for assuming personal risk may be chastened, at least for the moment. This is an altogether rational and expected response.

Where that becomes troublesome, however, is the moment when government comes to be seen as the sole source of security. What we, the public, need to understand is that the best guarantor of security is not government. It's economic growth. While we want to believe otherwise, the cold fact is that government can't guarantee economic permanency. Nobody, and nothing, can.

Pragmatically speaking, we must figure out how to increase people's sense of security without making government itself bigger or more powerful...

Whatever road we choose, entrepreneurial capitalism cannot be revived or flourish if new government security programs end up attenuating the individual's ultimate responsibility to attend to his or her own welfare.

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