State Capitalism and Government (In)Efficiency


By Joe Campbell
May 13th, 2009

see Ian Bremmer’s most recent article in Foreign Affairs on state capitalism was rather interesting and analytical regarding the role of the government in an economy – until this sentence cropped up:

source site Deeper state intervention in an economy means that bureaucratic waste, inefficiency, and corruption are more likely to hold back growth.

source Bremmer articles has gotten more than the usual amount of attention – George Will for example made it the basis for a column. Will rejects one of Bremmer’s basic premises though – that in the developed world, the recent forays into state capitalism are temporary:

[Bremmer] probably is wrong because he underestimates the pleasure politicians derive from using their nation’s wealth as a slush fund for purchasing political advantage.

Will implicitly accepts Bremmer’s above point here – pointing to a reason why government is less efficient than the market – because politics begins to affect it and detract from the bottom line.

Last night, I was at a discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations with Bremmer and Felix Rohatyn on “the state’s growing influence on liberal market economics” – and this question came up a few times. Several people commented on this – and the questioned what I took to be the conventional wisdom on this subject. One, a banker or economist of some sort who assisted Eastern European countries by aiding their government entities (such as phone companies, etc.) transition from a Communist to a capitalist economy. He made it clear from his experience that these government entities were inefficient and wasteful. Rohatyn though made the point that this occurred in a closed, non-transparent economy – and these factors contributed to waste more than government involvement. Rohatyn also made the point – which had Bremmer nodding – that as we could see thanks to our insights into GM and the financial companies – that they seemed rather wasteful and inefficient as well. Rohatyn seemed to think efficiency was only possible if the right person was leading an organization – whether it be GM or the DMV. But I think it may be more a matter of transparency and competition. These are the essence of a free market – which for me should not be defined as the absence of the state from a market, but the presence of choice, of transparency, of competition. The state can engage in practices which destroy or undermine a free market – subsidizing certain companies and declaring monopolies by the state for example. The state must be mindful of how it affects the market if it chooses to compete with private companies.

All of this would be moot though if government is less efficient than private companies. But I wonder – and this is a question – if there is any proof that government is more inefficient than the private market. I mean – I can tell you from my own experience that government can be inefficient. But I can also tell you that private companies also can. In terms of health care, at least some studies have found that Medicare is more efficient at providing health care than private insurers – as they eliminate the first step of illegally rejecting all payments on claims as a matter of course.

Of course – the many examples of government efficiency are legendary – but wasn’t it one of our bastions of capitalism that spent millions on his own personal bathroom. Of course, waste is less galling if it isn’t done with our own money. But I’m hoping someone out there has a study proving this – or disproving it.

It seems to be one of those ideas that are just accepted – conventional wisdom.