On top of the countless human tragedies, there will be many long-lasting social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps none will be more profound though, than the death of free market fundamentalism and the return of the State.
Why now? After all, there have long been moral, social and environmental risks posed by an unfettered market. Risks that present a strong case for action by the State – with inequality and climate change being the two most glaring examples. It didn’t help.
This is different. COVID-19 presents a blindingly powerful economic case for change. It shows that an ideological, quasi-religious approach to regulating markets, sometimes called neo-liberalism and, until the virus, the dominant political approach in the west, is fatally flawed. It creates a weak and unstable economy, which magnifies risks and is unable to manage shocks1. It threatens itself.
Of course, a pandemic would always have had a very large and disruptive economic impact. However, we can already see that those countries with a coherent, competent, respected and well-resourced State – everything market fundamentalists have sought to undermine – are likely to have both lower economic and human cost.
Thus, market fundamentalism is no longer even in the interests of the corporate sector or the financial elites. It creates unmanageable economic risks and ultimately poses an existential risk to capitalism, as argued by Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz2. Therefore, any corporate or finance leader who continues their knee jerk support for actions to ‘free up markets, ‘reduce taxes’, to ‘get government out of the way’, will now know the consequences.
This is not about being for or against ‘the market’ or the ‘corporate sector’. It is not about ‘curbing corporate power’ or developing ‘an alternative economic system’. Capitalism, correctly defined and well managed, can be a powerful and effective component of an intelligently designed, democratic and fair society.
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