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The Heart of the US Election

From Project Syndicate by Raghuram Rajan:

A real debate is emerging in America’s presidential election campaign. It is superficially about health care and taxes. More fundamentally, it is about democracy and free enterprise.

Democracy and free enterprise appear to be mutually reinforcing – it is hard to think of any flourishing democracy that is not a market economy. Moreover, while a number of nominally socialist economies have embraced free enterprise (or “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” as the Chinese Communist Party would say), it seems to be only a matter of time before they are forced to become more democratic.

Yet it is not clear a priori why democracy and free enterprise should be mutually supportive. After all, democracy implies regarding individuals as equal and treating them as such, with every adult getting an equal vote, whereas free enterprise empowers individuals based on how much economic value they create and how much property they own.

What prevents the median voter in a democracy from voting to dispossess the rich and successful? And why do the latter not erode the political power of the former? Echoes of such a tension are playing out as President Barack Obama tries to tap into middle-class anger, while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney appeals to disgruntled businesspeople.

One reason that the median voter rationally agrees to protect the property of the rich may be that she sees the rich as more efficient managers of that property. So, to the extent that the rich are self-made, and have come out winners in a fair, competitive, and transparent market, society may be better off allowing them to own and manage their wealth, while getting a reasonable share as taxes. The more, however, that the rich are seen as idle or crooked – as having simply inherited or, worse, gained their wealth nefariously – the more the median voter should be willing to vote for tough regulations and punitive taxes on them.

In today’s Russia, for example, property rights do not enjoy widespread popular support, because so many of the country’s fabulously wealthy oligarchs are seen as having acquired their wealth through dubious means. They grew rich because they managed the system, not because they managed their businesses well. When the government goes after a rich oil tycoon like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, few voices are raised in protest. And, as the rich kowtow to the authorities to protect their wealth, a strong check on official arbitrariness disappears. Government is free to become more autocratic.

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