Ha-Joon Chang thinks there are other ways an economy and a society could work that Europe and the United States are failing to recognize. He's not some kind of hippie agitator. Raised in Korea, he has taught at the Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom since 1990 and is the author of many academic articles and several books about how economic development happens.
In 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism, he cheerfully debunks many pillars of conventional Western economic wisdom. The book is short, pithy, easy to read and worth dipping into. It would make what I think of as a good "bathroom book" -- a volume best consumed in short chunks and mulled over, rather than read through at one sitting.
He begins by politely kicking over our defining economic myth:
Amen to that! Being more jaundiced than Chang, I'd simply propose that we always look at who benefits from a particular market-infringing law or regulation. Past winners are nearly always seeking to preclude anyone imagining novel alternatives -- and insurgents would do the same if we were in a position to do so.
Perhaps surprisingly for a thinker who reminds us to look for the political or profit motive that undergirds what we think are natural outcomes, Chang insists that free-market capitalism underestimates the power of non-economic motivations in human behavior.
Economists are not supposed to point out the non-economic glue that holds societies together. To mention the obvious is to be unserious, perhaps less than properly "butch" -- not professionally dominant. But of course that moral glue is there. If our societies were really just nasty containers for Hobbesian wars of all against all, they'd have collapsed long ago. When times are tough, people routinely act beyond personal self-interest, narrowly conceived -- we rescue each other, share, lend a helping hand -- and society applauds these irrational actions.
Not every aspect of 23 Things will be comfortable to progressive Western readers. Chang points out -- accurately I think -- that the level of wages in a country is pretty much determined by immigration controls. If everyone could freely migrate where they'd get paid best, we'd all be stuck in a leveling process that would be radically downward for most people in what are now rich countries. (We are experiencing such a process when the work, instead of the people, migrates via international outsourcing.) This is not an argument for or against some level of legal migration, just something that needs to be understood.
Chang, no radical, thinks capitalism can be improved. He offers challenging conclusions.