The social market economy in its various forms has arguably been the most successful large scale model of human organisations in the history of our species. Now, that model is in a retreat. Isn’t it time for its advocates to fight back?
What I mean by the social market approach is simply one that seeks to advance the human condition by balancing freedom and social justice. We can argue indefinitely about the meaning of these terms, but for the sake of my argument I mean a centre right idea of freedom (individualistic, materialist, negative in the Isaiah Berlin sense) and a centre left idea of social justice (universal, redistributive, positive). In policy terms the social market perspective seeks to maximise the scope for market-led enterprise and innovation while insisting that such activity is compatible with key social, civic and environmental goods.
There are right and left versions of social market beliefs and one can support the core idea while also wanting to take it new directions (as I tried to do last year with my idea of the human welfare economy), but I maintain there is still an important difference between the model’s advocates and those at other points of the political spectrum. Whilst most people say they want freedom and justice the non-social market left would be willing to sacrifice a great deal of freedom if they felt it was the necessary path to justice while, conversely, many on the right would eagerly sacrifice social justice to expand what they call freedom.
On the day after the New Hampshire triumphs of Trump and Sanders, the growing popularity of those who are lukewarm or antagonistic to social market principles is hard to deny. There is plenty of evidence in Europe too.
But the politicians are only a small, arguably largely epiphenomenal, part of the problem. Major intertwined threats to the social market include:
• Global corporations (particularly the financial and technology sectors) and their ideological apologists who have shown little or no commitment to the implicit contract at the heart of the social model
• Technological innovations which can make the relationship between making money in a place and paying something back to that place ever harder to maintain
• The global movement of people and wars of identity which can fracture our sense of common interest and obligation
• The long term rise in inequality and stagnation of living standards of average and below average workers which has undermined confidence in the social market compromise among those who, arguably, need it most
• Finally, and arguably most dangerously, the declining authority of institutions – particularly democratic institutions – making it ever harder for them to do the heavy lifting involved in the core social market compromise
All is not lost. Social market champions – like Justin Trudeau in Canada - can win elections, the progress on climate change (albeit tentative) at the Paris summit suggests that global institutions can occasionally rise to global challenges, many corporate leaders are now well ahead of politicians in openly recognising some of these challenges. But yet; while, overall, the ideology and craft of social market management is in retreat its advocates still behave like they are the establishment and all the others the insurgents.
For several decades leading up to and through the twentieth century (particularly after the second world war) evolving social market models in the West (and adapted versions in the East) delivered massively improving individual circumstances and life chances, an expanding and improving social and public sphere and major advances in human emancipation (that these advances were sometimes won at the expense of other less privileged parts of the world is true and important but doesn’t in itself invalidate the argument).
But the case for the social market as we look towards the middle of the 21st century cannot be the same as the case that won out in the middle of the 20th century. The new social market needs inter alia to be:
Less paternalistic and more participative
Less about hierarchies and more about networks
Less about nations and more about cities and global regions
Less about quantity of stuff and more about quality of life
But most of all right now we need to change tactics.
Instead of being complacent, internally divided, defensive, shorter-termist the advocates of the social market need to see this as an epochal battle. We need to be clearer about what is expected of our friends and what it is that defines our enemies. We need to make the social market about an exciting and mobilising future not defending what’s left of the past. We need to innovate; identifying, expanding and proselytising for new models that exemplify the 21st century social market whether they be in localities, corporations, campaigns or international institutions.
Mea culpa: all through my adult life I have indulged - and sometimes echoed - the high minded disdain for the messy compromise of the social market that has come from an assortment of Marxists, ecologists, post-structuralists, libertarians, radical artists and faith based idealists. It seemed such posturing was an engaging and harmless pursuit at the expense of the bland but dominant ideology of the bourgeoisie. But those days have gone.
As the social market values and system that brought most people greater security, affluence and freedom and which for decades assured us the future would be better for us all than the past threatens to decay friendless into history, those who still believe it need to get to work.