John Gray’s new book, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, is exasperating. Gray makes big predictions, such as: “There can no longer be much doubt that we are approaching a major upheaval in the international economic system. It is a pretty safe bet that, a few years hence, it will be difficult to find a single person who admits ever having supported the global regime which established opinion still insists is immutable.” and he bitterly condemns capitalism. “Free markets, the desolation of families and communities and the use of the sanctions of criminal law as a last recourse against social collapse go in tandem,” he claims.
But nowhere in the book do we find an argument—at least not a sustained, consistent one. Instead, Gray offers numerous contradictory statements. On one page Gray argues, “Worldwide mobility of capital and production triggers a ‘race to the bottom,’ in which more humane capitalist economies are compelled to deregulate and trim back taxes and welfare provision.” A few pages later, he states, “European capitalisms will continue to differ profoundly from American free markets. No European country—not even the United Kingdom—is ready to tolerate the levels of social dereliction produced by the free market in the United States.” Which one is it?
What’s more, Gray concedes that, 20 years ago, Great Britain needed to unshackle its economy. “Thatcherite policy was an attempt to impose a much needed modernization on the British economy . . . . British corporatism—the triangular coordination of economic policy by government, employers, and trade unions—had become an engine of industrial conflict and strife over the distribution of the national income rather than an instrument of wealth creation or a guarantor of social cohesion” he writes. But Gray then spends several pages attacking the effects of these “much needed” policy changes. He does a similar about-face when discussing reforms in New Zealand.
Gray’s attempts to be on both sides of so many issues would leave the reader confused if it weren’t for the highly polemical nature of the book. His vicious swipes at the free market and at the United States—which he argues are synonymous—make it clear where his sympathies lie. False Dawn purports to be a case against the global free market. But it’s really a broader attack against classical liberalism, or the “Enlightenment project,” as Gray calls it.
Gray, a professor at the London School of Economics, was once a classical liberal himself. But he abandoned that position several years and books ago in favor of a rather odd pro-welfare state, pro-green conservatism. False Dawn is animated by little more than maudlin sentiment about the supposed victims of capitalism. He concedes that the free market’s “productivity is prodigious.” But he quickly adds that “so are its human costs.”
Free markets, according to Gray, “corrode some of the central institutions and values of bourgeois life.” For example, he argues that they contribute to family dysfunction. “How many American households eat together as families? How many children live in the same neighborhoods or cities as their parents? If an American becomes unemployed, can he or she find support from an extended family, as can Spaniards and Italians in European countries?” Gray asks. The obvious answer is that people are free to choose to live as close together as they wish. The wealth that capitalism creates simply gives people more options. It doesn’t dictate anything—unlike socialism and its many interventionist cousins.
Gray also states that the traditional career is a casualty of unfettered capitalism. “In traditional bourgeois societies, most middle-class people could reasonably expect to spend their working lives in a single vocation. Few can now harbor any such hope.” The result? “Many expect, not without reason, that their incomes may fall in the future” Gray writes. True enough. Job stability is not what it once was, but that is no reason for hand-wringing. Many young people now expect to have a half-dozen different jobs before retiring and understand that there may be a pay cut somewhere along the line. People can and do adjust to variations in income, something that happens under every economic system. Besides, many—maybe most—people find changing jobs to be an exciting and liberating experience, not one filled with dread and anxiety.
At bottom, what bothers Gray about the free market is that it exposes people to risk—the risk of making poor decisions. But classical liberalism doesn’t promise people happiness; it promises them a shot at it. Some people inevitably make bad choices. It is much better to have the liberty to make your own choices than to have to live with the often disastrous and irremediable consequences of choices made by government officials. In making mountains out of molehills in his fervor to discredit “global capitalism,” Gray ignores that truth.
Aaron Steelman is a graduate student in the social sciences at the University of Chicago.