Of course, none of these quantitative measures of the state's role tells us how well government is actually working. For that we must turn to very different kinds of data. Every year the World Economic Forum (WEF) publishes a Global Competitiveness Index, which assesses countries from all kinds of different angles, including the economic efficiency of their public-sector institutions. Since the current methodology was adopted in 2004, the United States' average competitiveness score has fallen from 5.82 to 5.43, one of the steepest declines among developed economies. China's score, meanwhile, has leapt from 4.29 to 4.90.
Even more fascinating is the WEF's Executive Opinion Survey, which produces a significant amount of the data that goes into the Global Competitiveness Index. The table below selects 15 measures of government efficacy, focusing on aspects of the rule of law ranging from the protection of private property rights to the policing of corruption and the control of organized crime. These are appropriate things to measure because, regardless of whether a state is nominally a market economy or a state-led economy, the quality of its legal institutions will, in practice, have an impact on the ease with which business can be done.
Table: Measures of the rule of law from the WEF Executive Opinion Survey, 2011-2012
(Note: Most indicators derived from the Executive Opinion Survey are expressed as scores on a 1-7 scale, with 7 being the most desirable outcome.)
It is an astonishing yet scarcely acknowledged fact that on no fewer than 14 out of 15 issues relating to property rights and governance, the United States now fares markedly worse than Hong Kong. Even mainland China does better in two areas. Indeed, the United States makes the global top 20 in only one: investor protection, where it is tied for fifth. On every other count, its reputation is shockingly bad.
The implications are clear. If we are to understand the changing relationship between the state and the market in the world today, we must eschew crude generalizations about "state capitalism," a term that is really not much more valuable today than the Marxist-Leninist term "state monopoly capitalism" was back when Rudolf Hilferding coined it a century ago.
No one seriously denies that the state has a role to play in economic life. The question is what that role should be and how it can be performed in ways that simultaneously enhance economic efficiency and minimize the kind of rent-seeking behavior -- "corruption" in all its shapes and forms -- that tends to arise wherever the public and private sectors meet.
We are all state capitalists now -- and we have been for over a century, ever since the modern state began its steady growth in the late 19th century, when Adolph Wagner first formulated his law of rising state expenditures. But there are myriad forms of state capitalism, from the enlightened autocracy of Singapore to the dysfunctional tyranny of Zimbabwe, from the egalitarian nanny state of Denmark to the individualist's paradise that is Ron Paul's Texas.
The real contest of our time is not between a state-capitalist China and a market-capitalist America, with Europe somewhere in the middle. It is a contest that goes on within all three regions as we all struggle to strike the right balance between the economic institutions that generate wealth and the political institutions that regulate and redistribute it.
The character of this century -- whether it is "post-American," Chinese, or something none of us yet expects -- will be determined by which political system gets that balance right.