This faith in the markets is misplaced: only governments can save our living planet
The European emissions trading system died last week. Why? Because of the lobbying power of big business
In other ages, states sought to seize as much power as they could. Today, the self-hating state renounces its powers. Governments anathematise governance. They declare their role redundant and illegitimate. They launch furious assaults on their own branches, seeking wherever possible to lop them off.
This self-mutilation is a response to the fact that power has shifted. States now operate at the behest of others. Deregulation, privatisation, the shrinking of the scope, scale and spending of the state: these are now seen as the only legitimate policies. The corporations and billionaires to whom governments defer will have it no other way.
Just as taxation tends to redistribute wealth, regulation tends to redistribute power. A democratic state controls and contains powerful interests on behalf of the powerless. This is why billionaires and corporations hate regulation, and – through their newspapers, thinktanks and astroturf campaigns – mobilise people against it. State power is tyranny, state power is freedom.
But the interchangeable middle managers who call themselves ministers cannot wholly dismiss the wishes of the electorate. They must show that they are doing something to protect what people value. They resolve the contradiction between the demands of the electorate and the demands of big business by shifting their responsibilities to something they call “the market”. This term is often used as a euphemism for corporations and the very rich.
To justify the policy of marketisation, they invest the market with magical capabilities. It can reach the parts that the ordinary scope of government can’t reach; it can achieve political miracles. I don’t believe that market mechanisms are always wrong. I do believe that they fail to solve the problem of power. In fact they tend to compound it.
Last week the European emissions trading system died. It was supposed to create a market for carbon, whose escalating price would force companies to abandon fossil fuels and replace them with less polluting alternatives. In principle it was as good a mechanism as any other. What it did not offer was a magical alternative to political intervention.
The scheme collapsed on Tuesday after the European parliament voted against an emergency withdrawal of some of the carbon permits whose over-supply had swamped the market. Why were too many permits issued? Because of the lobbying power of big business. Why did MEPs refuse to withdraw them? Because of the lobbying power of big business. […]
When governments pretend they no longer need to govern, when they pretend that a world regulated by bankers, corporations and the profit motive is a better world than one regulated by voters and their representatives, nothing is safe. All systems of government are flawed. But few are as flawed as those controlled by private money.