For Bremmer, state capitalism poses a grave "threat" not only to the free market model, but also to democracy in the developing world.
Although applicable to states all over the globe, at root this is an argument about China. Bremmer himself writes that "China holds the key." But is it in fact correct to ascribe China's success to the state rather than the market? The answer depends on where you go in China. In Shanghai or Chongqing, for example, the central government does indeed loom very large. In Wenzhou, by comparison, the economy is as vigorously entrepreneurial and market-driven as anywhere I have ever been.
True, China's economy continues to be managed on the basis of a five-year plan, an authoritarian tradition that goes all the way back to Josef Stalin. As I write, however, the Chinese authorities are grappling with a problem that owes more to market forces than to the plan: the aftermath of an urban real estate bubble caused by the massive 2009-2010 credit expansion. Among China experts, the hot topic of the moment is the new shadow banking system in cities such as Wenzhou, which last year enabled developers and investors to carry on building and selling apartment blocks even as the People's Bank of China sought to restrict lending by raising rates and bank reserve requirements.
Talk to some eminent Chinese economists, and you could be forgiven for concluding that the ultimate aim of policy is to get rid of state capitalism altogether. "We need to privatize all the state-owned enterprises," one leading economist told me over dinner in Beijing a year ago. "We even need to privatize the Great Hall of the People." He also claimed to have said this to President Hu Jintao. "Hu couldn't tell if I was serious or if I was joking," he told me proudly.
Ultimately, it is an unhelpful oversimplification to divide the world into "market capitalist" and "state capitalist" camps. The reality is that most countries are arranged along a spectrum where both the intent and the extent of state intervention in the economy vary. Only extreme libertarians argue that the state has no role whatsoever to play in the economy. As a devotee of Adam Smith, I accept without qualification his argument in The Wealth of Nations that the benefits of free trade and the division of labor will be enjoyed only in countries with rational laws and institutions. I also agree with Silicon Valley visionary Peter Thiel that, under the right circumstances (e.g., in time of war), governments are capable of forcing the direction and pace of technological change: Think the Manhattan Project.
But the question today is not whether the state or the market should be in charge. The real question is which countries' laws and institutions are best, not only at achieving rapid economic growth but also, equally importantly, at distributing the fruits of growth in a way that citizens deem to be just.
Let us begin by asking a simple question that can be answered with empirical data: Where in the world is the role of the state greatest in economic life, and where is it smallest? The answer lies in data the IMF publishes on "general government total expenditure" as a percentage of GDP. At one extreme are countries like East Timor and Iraq, where government expenditure exceeds GDP; at the other end are countries like Bangladesh, Guatemala, and Myanmar, where it is an absurdly low share of total output.
Beyond these outliers we have China, whose spending represents 23 percent of GDP, down from around 28 percent three decades ago. By this measure, China ranks 147th out of 183 countries for which data are available. Germany ranks 24th, with government spending accounting for 48 percent of GDP. The United States, meanwhile, is 44th with 44 percent of GDP. By this measure, state capitalism is a European, not an Asian, phenomenon: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Sweden all have higher government spending relative to GDP than Germany. The Danish figure is 58 percent, more than twice that of the Chinese.
The results are similar if one focuses on government consumption -- the share of GDP accounted for by government purchases of goods and services, as opposed to transfers or investment. Again, ignoring the outliers, it is Europe whose states play the biggest role in the economy as buyers: Denmark (27 percent) is far ahead of Germany (18 percent), while the United States is at 17 percent. China? 13 percent. For Hong Kong, the figure is 8 percent. For Macao, 7 percent.
Where China does lead the West is in the enormous share of gross fixed capital formation (jargon for investment in hard assets) accounted for by the public sector. According to World Bank data, this amounted to 21 percent of China's GDP in 2008, among the highest figures in the world, reflecting the still-leading role that government plays in infrastructure investment. The equivalent figures for developed Western countries are vanishingly small; in the West the state is a spendthrift, not an investor, borrowing money to pay for goods and services. On the other hand, the public sector's share of Chinese investment has been falling steeply during the past 10 years. Here too the Chinese trend is away from state capitalism.