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Economist: The Visible Hand

January 21, 2012

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The crisis of Western liberal capitalism has coincided with the rise of a powerful new form of state capitalism in emerging markets, says Adrian Wooldridge.

BEATRICE WEBB grew up as a fervent believer in free markets and limited government. Her father was a self-made railway tycoon and her mother an ardent free-trader. One of her family's closest friends was Herbert Spencer, the leading philosopher of Victorian liberalism. Spencer took a shine to young Beatrice and treated her to lectures on the magic of the market, the survival of the fittest and the evils of the state. But as Beatrice grew up she began to have doubts. Why should the state not intervene in the market to order children out of chimneys and into schools, or to provide sustenance for the hungry and unemployed or to rescue failing industries? In due course Beatrice became one of the leading architects of the welfare state—and a leading apologist for Soviet communism.

The argument about the relative merits of the state and the market that preoccupied young Beatrice has been raging ever since. Between 1900 and 1970 the pro-statists had the wind in their sails. Governments started off by weaving social safety nets and ended up by nationalising huge chunks of the economy. Yet between 1970 and 2000 the free-marketeers made a comeback. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher started a fashion across the West for privatising state-run industries and pruning the welfare state. The Soviet Union and its outriggers collapsed in ruins.

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