Capitalism's reputational problem

People in the developed world are losing faith in capitalism, says Merryn Somerset Webb. Perhaps it's time the system was given a reboot.

Will the next generation be better off than this one? Given that history shows our world almost always getting rich, safer and healthier, you'd think the answer to that would be a clear yes. After all, in the 27 years since 1990, extreme poverty is down by 75%, child poverty has halved and world hunger is down by 40%. In the UK real incomes are taking a breather, but the average full-time earner is still taking home double what he or she was in 1975. Hourly wage inequality has fallen every year since 1998 and across the UK income inequality as a whole has been falling for years. That's all good.

However, ask anyone around you if they think things are getting better and the answer is very likely to be no. Some 71% of Britons think the world is getting worse and a mere 19% think that their children will be richer, healthier and safer than they are. Ask the Germans and the Americans and they will tell you the same (the figures for them are 15% and 14% respectively). It seems that they no longer trust the system that has bought us such riches. Capitalism is developing a serious reputational problem.

What's to be done? For part of the answer it is worth reading an article by Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson on Capitalism, she says, needs a "reboot". She reminds us that Adam Smith was more than the "buccaneering laissez-faire hero" that he is seen as today. He was also a moral philosopher who was deeply concerned about the poverty and inequality than can exist in a market economy and who was pro-government intervention to prevent it. He also recognised that a market economy can only work well if it operates with consent.

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And here is the problem, says Davidson. The UK population is less concerned with inequality (reasonably, given that it is at its lowest level since 1986) than with obvious injustice. They believe income should be the result of hard work and talent and that the fruits of success should, to a degree at least, be shared. So they object to the fact that between 1993 and 2014 nearly 40% of the top-paid chief executives in the UK ended up being sacked in the wake of some disaster or another. Rewards for failure don't look good. And they object to the way in which the likes of Amazon can dominate retail yet pay low wages and little tax. It doesn't seem fair.

We've written about all these things here many times before (and will keep doing so). But Davidson is right. If the state is to intervene to improve matters and it is inevitable that it will do so it needs to take the obvious steps of improving technical education and the like. However, it also needs to think about taking visible action in areas where there is clear market failure, with a view to helping capitalism regain its reputation as a force for good.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.