Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems by Charles E. Lindblom

I began reading this book sometime around 1978. I finished it today. I don’t remember why I stopped reading it the first time. Through the years, I thought about picking it up again but never did. Until a few weeks ago.

Charles Lindblom (1917-2018) was a Yale professor of politics and economics. In Politics and Markets, he categorizes and analyzes the different ways nations are organized, concentrating on the relative roles played by governments and markets in countries ranging from the United States and United Kingdom on one end of the continuum to China, the Soviet Union and Cuba on the other. Since the book was published in 1977, he pays a lot more attention to communism than he would do today.

Reading this book is strange at times. Lindblom is describing something in great detail that you might feel you already know. Don’t we all understand how governments and markets work? Well, not as well as Prof. Lindblom did. (Still, if you had to teach relatively advanced students from another planet about the way governments and businesses operate on Earth, starting from scratch, Politics and Markets would make a very good text.)

The book left me with two main thoughts. The first is hardly a revelation: all countries, even Cuba circa 1976, are hybrids. All countries have governments, of course. But all of them also employ so-called “free markets” as well. No society is totally planned by the government, for good reasons. Even the most pervasive governments use markets for various purposes, as when money is paid to acquire consumer goods or to attract employees to better-paying jobs.

This makes China’s transition from a communist country to a leading participant in world markets easier to understand. The Chinese have retained the one-party control of communism while doing a better job at capitalism than many of their capitalist competitors. The issue is always what mechanisms (laws, regulations, civic education) should be used to insure that businesses are successful while serving the health and welfare of society. Neither total government control of the economy nor total freedom for business would make sense. 

The other thought is more surprising. We often hear that democracy and capitalism work well together. They say it’s something to do with freedom. Yet there is a serious conflict between democracy and big business. Lindblom explains how the people who run businesses must be encouraged or induced to keep the economy functioning. If government officials interfere too much (from the business perspective), companies can stop producing sufficient amounts of the goods and services the rest of us need, at prices we can afford. They can also decide to pay us to little to live on or employ too few of us. If business people don’t produce enough or raise prices too much, there’s inflation; if they don’t pay us enough or hire enough of us, there’s deflation.. 

Because big corporations are so important to the economic life of a nation, the unelected owners and managers of these firms wield great power. From the book’s final paragraphs:

. . . It is possible that the rise of the corporation has offset or more than offset the decline of class as an instrument of indoctrination. That the corporation is a powerful instrument for indoctrination we have documented earlier. That it has risen to prominence in society as class lines have muted is clear enough. That it creates a new core of wealth and power for a newly constructed upper class, as well an an overpowering loud voice, is also reasonably clear. 

The executive of the large corporation, is on, on many counts, the contemporary counterpart to the landed gentry of an earlier era, his voice amplified by the technology of mass communication. A single corporate voice on television, it has been estimated, can reach more minds in one evening than were reached from all the platforms of all the world’s meetings in the course of several centuries preceding broadcasting. More than class, the major specific institutional barrier to fuller democracy may therefore be the autonomy of the private corporation.

It has been a curious feature of democratic thought that it has not faced up to the private corporation as a peculiar organization in an ostensible democracy. Enormously large, rich in resources, the big corporations, we have seen, command more resources than do most government units. They can also, over a broad range, insist that government meet their demands, even if these demands run counter to those of citizens expressed through their polyarchal [rule by the many] controls. Moreover, they do not disqualify themselves from playing the partisan role of a citizen — for the corporation is legally a person. And they exercise unusual veto powers. They are on all these counts disproportionately powerful, we have seen. The large private corporation fits oddly into democratic theory and vision. Indeed, it does not fit.

Lindblom doesn’t offer a solution, although he thinks more corporations might be treated like defense contractors or public utilities. The government would guarantee their profits while exerting significant control over their operations.

And with that, Charles Lindblom’s Politics and Markets can safely return to a bookcase to sit quietly for another 40 years. That’s if it escapes the recycling bin, or a natural disaster, since even excellent books don’t live forever.