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This book, written by two heavyweight University of Chicago financial economists, was published during our last financial market “crisis” in 2003. This was the time of the post internet equity bear market, the time of the Enron, Worldcom and Global Crossing scandals. The thesis is that free markets, for all their benefits particularly to the poor and powerless, rest on precarious political grounds. The impulse of elites to curtail the functioning of markets is strong and always a threat, particularly in times of crisis when the public loses confidence in markets’ fundamental fairness. . The authors fret about the dark clouds of 2003; the clouds are certainly darker today. Moreover, they show that the threat to markets often comes from the “capitalists” themselves, established incumbents who seek to use the power of government to curtail the free functioning of market to protect their entrenched position
Seems uncontroversial as a thesis. The “rent seeking” impulse in modern democracies has been elaborated before. Nevertheless, this book makes some new and worthwhile contributions. The authors are professors of finance and thus skew much of their discussion to the operation of financial markets. They show in accessible terms the benefits to society of smoothly functioning financial markets, and how in particular they benefit new entrants and indirectly enforce competitiveness in product markets. Oftentimes even reputable economists will rationalize nations’ desire to protect domestic financial markets even while advocating openness in product markets. Rajan and Zingales show that this is typically the result of some politically powerful vested interest in the country protecting its own position. Indeed, open financial markets are arguably even more potent in bringing the benefits of capitalism to the masses. The authors explode the myth of the financier as economic parasite, and show how through the spreading of risk, required returns are reduced and productive investment increased.
They introduce an intriguing and, to me at least, novel theory that private property will be more robust as an institution in circumstances where property is held by those who are the most efficient users of it. The better part of an entire chapter is devoted to an explication of the emergence of the “Squirearchy” in Tudor England, and how it, through the increasing strength of Parliament, was able to suppress the power of the Monarchy and its arbitrary control over property rights. The argument is the that redistribution of land previously expropriated from the Church into the hands of efficient gentleman farmers not only helped create a free market in land, but buttressed the institution of private property because more efficient holders of land had both the economic power and the interest to defend their property rights. Although the argument feels slightly ad hoc at times, the question of why and how strong property rights emerged in some societies and not in others is an important one, and the authors’ thesis is plausible and worthy of consideration.
Thus England emerged first among western European countries in establishing secure property rights and circumscribed government, and from there led in industrialization and the development of financial markets. The authors emphasize the importance of financial markets in nurturing industrialization and the importance of keeping governments and vested interests from rigging the financial markets for the benefit of a privileged few. Here however is where the essential argument becomes ambivalent. Developed countries have an advantage over the developing world in that their financial markets are well-established and tolerably transparent: they have established a functioning financial “infrastructure”. For developing economies to emulate this, they need to establish similarly strong institutions to protect property rights, enforce contracts, prevent and punish fraud, etc. The implication for the authors seems to be that many of the
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Whatta book. Amazing fundaes but so clearly written a layman can grok it. My enthusiasm for a PhD is renewed.