For quite a while now, I’ve been making the argument that, in an information economy, the relationship between investment, production and profit, central to capitalism, no longer works. Here’s an early statement from my Giblin lecture in 2005.

to the extent that innovation and productive growth arise from
activities that are pursued primarily on the basis non-economic motives, the link
between incentives and outcomes is weakened. This in turn undermines the
reationale for policies aimed at sharpening incentives and ensuring that everyone
engaged in the production of goods and services is exposed to the incentives15
generated by a competitive market. Such policies represent the core program of
‘economic rationalism’, the set of ideas that dominated Australian public policy in
the 1980s and 1990s.

I recently reviewed two books by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake. Their 2017 book, Capitalism without Capital presented a relatively optimistic view of a market economy in which “intangible capital” plays a central role. But their followup Restarting the Future: How to Fix the Intangible Economy, is much bleaker

“When we think about the state of the economy today, it is hard not to think, it wasn’t supposed to be like this,”

My assessment was that

The real intangible here is likely to be monopoly power, generated either by intellectual property laws or control over platforms.

My conclusion

Haskel and Westlake discuss traditional spheres of government activity — the defence-related R&D that gave us the internet, for example — but they don’t consider whether governments should become active investors in intangible capital.

The possibilities are full of promise, but also potential pitfalls. Governments could expand the informational role of public media services like the ABC, reversing the cuts of recent decades. They could systematically strive to make information of all kinds available in an easily searchable form, bypassing advertising-driven search engines like Google. And they could provide platforms for social media on a common-carrier basis, requiring easy interconnection and discouraging the use of “algorithms” (a misnomer) to keep people inside a “walled garden.”

It’s easy to point to the problems that would arise if these possibilities were pursued in a world where trust in governments is low. But these are the kinds of arguments that need to be made when the existing economic model is failing so clearly.

Despite the limited scope of the reforms they consider, Haskel and Westlake’s work tackles fundamental questions considered by few other writers. Restarting the Future is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of capitalism, or in the possibility of a post-capitalist future. •