119. Peter Klein on Cronyism, Capitalism, and the Entrepreneurial Pathway
We often hear that capitalism is under fire: in contemporary politics, in journalism, in popular discourse, and even in some business schools and among some management scholars and their students. But the criticism, upon examination, is not about capitalism but cronyism. The two are entirely separate systems, and the corruption and corporate political activities of cronyism are not exhibited in capitalism, and will never appear if we can adhere to capitalism’s purest form, entrepreneurship.
Capitalism is a system in which factors of production are privately owned, resources are allocated through markets, i.e., voluntary co-operation among individuals, and individuals and groups are free to engage in economic activity without centralized control or interference from the state.
Capitalism includes the monetary system that enables entrepreneurs to engage in economic calculation, and the institutions that support property rights, and the rule of law. There are high levels of individual freedom of people to form groups and act without state coercion or compulsion.
Cronyism is a system in which the state takes charge of, or has a high degree of influence in, allocating resources to firms, and some firms derive advantages over other firms based on their relationship with and influence with government officials, rather than their ability to satisfy customer wants via superior capabilities. The supporting ideology favors high levels of state interference in the allocation of economic resources, with institutions and practices favoring the manipulation of public policy as a strategy for increasing profits.
The benefits of capitalism and the vices of cronyism
The advocacy for capitalism in the paper we discuss with Professor Klein in this episode of the Economics For Business podcast (“Capitalism, Cronyism, And Management Scholarship: A Call For Clarity”: Mises.org/E4B_119_Paper) is not pure theory, but rather the greater benefits for everyone in society that result from capitalism compared to alternative systems.
Current critics vent their dissatisfaction with some aspects of the status quo, such as issues related to the natural environment or reactions to measurements of income inequality. It is not only an illogical leap to believe that taking decision authority away from private individuals and firms and giving it to government will result in greater benefits for society. It is also moving the system towards cronyism, so that unscrupulous people, whether they be executives, investors, labor unions, politicians or government bureaucrats can benefit themselves at society’s expense.
The nuances of cronyism and the maleficent influence of size
Bribery, blackmail, extortion and other forms of criminality are widely deemed inappropriate. The problem of cronyism lies in practices that are legal and encouraged by the intelligentsia and business school academics as sources of commercial advantage via the manipulation of the political system. These include activities such as lobbying, political contributions, or awarding board seats to retired government officials.
Peter Klein noted that there was a time when Microsoft, as an up-and-coming high growth tech company, did not even have a Washington DC office. Politicians couldn’t help them and didn’t understand their business. But the politicians reminded Microsoft who was really in charge, via an expensive, threatening and long drawn out anti-trust suit. Now Microsoft and the rest of the mature high tech industry have extensive Washington DC offices and very large lobbying budgets. Levels of cronyism parallel the scale of the modern corporation.
The costs of cronyism
The costs of cronyism are both direct and indirect. The direct costs are misallocation of resources and the production of goods and services that the free market would not want but politicians favor. The skills of executives and managers are applied to the influencing of government officials rather than to seeking the rewards of the marketplace via consumer acceptance and consumer value. Firms develop in much different ways than they would under capitalism.
Some of the misallocation of resources are most highly visible in the build-up of bureaucracy in corporations. Bureaucrats are not strategic decision makers and not producers of goods and services. They are devoted to compliance, government relations, and working with regulators and lawyers. Their salaries and office space and equipment are all misallocations of resources.
An indirect cost of cronyism is the undermining of institutions. A well-functioning market has institutions for integrity of contracts, resolving disputes, and protecting private property. The institutions are neutral: they enforce general rules that apply to all. The effect of cronyism — its whole point, in effect — is to override general rules in favor of privileging those in power over those who lack power. Confidence in institutions consequently erodes.
Business schools and management scholars are part of the problem
Trendy developments in management practice such as stakeholder capitalism, ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance considerations for investment) and DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion requirements) are forms of cronyism, diverting business activities away from meeting the wants of customers in voluntary free-market exchanges to aligning with government directives, some current and some anticipated.
Business schools have been party to encouraging this non-market behavior, and to developing the associated indexes and scales and processes, all of which are murky and ambiguous, as well as very costly to implement. Executives welcome the ambiguity that makes accountability more difficult.
Business schools and universities are, in fact, vulnerable to the practices and measures they have encouraged, and their staffs are now bloated with middle managers, administrators and compliance departments. It’s all highly costly and a waste of resources.
Corporations exhibit similarly destructive economic behavior with their “woke” advertising campaigns and corporate training programs. Gramsci’s long march through the institutions seems to have reached the corporate HR departments who are the source of much of this uneconomic, anti-capitalist behavior.
Entrepreneurship is the pathway to lead us out of the cronyist morass
The budding entrepreneurial movement is the way out of cronyism and corporatism. Entrepreneurial businesses focused on consumers and customers, on innovation and betterment, and on producing ever-improving goods and services, have no time for cronyism. They are not looking for political protection.
Newer firms, newer business models, and those harnessing newer technologies are less invested in lobbying and corporate political activity. They don’t have the time or the resources for it, and slow and sclerotically reactive government can only get in the way.
Entrepreneurial innovation can trigger the separation of business from government and reverse the processes of cronyism, encouraging an open, dynamic, vibrant economy in which firms of all sizes engage in the full-time pursuit of innovation and new economic value, and devote no resources to lobbying or government relations.