23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang: Review

by @GrahamJBarnes

Just one uneasiness about Ha-Joon Chang’s brilliant book – which, breaking the black hat habits of a lifetime, I’ll leave until last.

The book is a concise debunking of free market ideology. It presents as 23 ‘Things’ – short, provocative (to some) statements such as ‘There is no such thing as a free market’, ‘free market policies rarely make poor countries rich’, and ‘equality of opportunity may not be fair’. Each ‘Thing’ is introduced via a description of ‘What they tell you’, where Chang restates the position of free-marketeers in short order, with minimal use of adjectives. Read together these sections could provide an 8 page precised prospectus for the free market. Reading them one’s confirmation bias (I admit it) feels threatened, and a sense of unease initially sets in.

The joy of the structure Chang has chosen is that each of these sections is followed immediately by a ‘What they dont tell you’ section which states, in similarly bald prose, a rebuttal of the free-market thinking. Sections that follow then expand on this critical narrative, homing in on key aspects of the argument.

His choice of words is pointed, sparse and memorable. There were so many tweetable gems in the 260 pages of this £9.99 Penguin paperback, that I had to exercise self control or be suspected of agency status.

There are many insightful passages, so it is difficult to choose, but maybe these will give a flavour:

“A market looks free only because we so unconditionally accept its underlying restrictions.”

“Shareholders may be the owners of a corporation but, as the most mobile of the ‘stakeholders’, they often care the least about the long-term future of the company.”

“The wage gaps between rich and poor countries exist not mainly because of differences in individual productivity but mainly because of immigration control.”

“..the internet revolution has .. not been as important as the washing machine …. We should not underestimate the old and overestimate the new.”

“The world works as it does only because people are not the totally self-seeking agents that free market economics believes them to be…..if we assume the worst about people we will get the worst out of them.”

And that’s just from the first 5 Things.

Finally, the quibble. Chang is a capitalist, just not a free market capitalist, and in places there are apparent implicit ‘growth is good’ sentiments – for example when comparing the success of different national economies. I am not entirely sure if this is indeed part of Chang’s value-set or if he is taking the Marxian approach of assuming the entirety of your opponents proposition in order to rebut it. But Chang on Degrowth I’d like to read.

It’s an absolutely brilliant book. Hugely recommended.

Featured image: city buildings. Source: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/709844 . Author: Zern Liew

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