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The Political Economy of Capitalism
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Capitalism is often defined as an economic system where private actors are. allowed to own and control the use of property in accord with their own interests and. where the invisible hand of the pricing mechanism coordinates supply and demand in. markets in a way that is automatically in the best interests of society Government in this. perspective is often described as responsible for peace justice and tolerable taxes. This paper defines capitalism as a system of indirect governance for economic. relationships where all markets exist within institutional frameworks that are provided by. political authorities i e governments In this second perspective capitalism is a three. level system much like any organized sports Markets occupy the first level where the. competition takes place the institutional foundations that underpin those markets are the. second and the political authority that administers the system is the third While markets. do indeed coordinate supply and demand with the help of the invisible hand in a short. term quasi static perspective government coordinates the modernization of market. frameworks in accord with changing circumstances including changing perceptions of. societal costs and benefits In this broader perspective government has two distinct roles. one to administer the existing institutional frameworks including the provision of. infrastructure and the administration of laws and regulations and the second to mobilize. political power to bring about modernization of those frameworks as circumstances. and or societal priorities change Thus for a capitalist system to evolve in an effective. developmental sense through time it must have two hands and not one an invisible hand. that is implicit in the pricing mechanism and a visible hand that is explicitly managed by. government through a legislature and a bureaucracy Inevitably the visible hand has a. strategy no matter how implicit short sighted or incoherent that strategy may be. The Political Economy of Capitalism1, Microeconomics is the study of how markets the usual defining institution. of capitalism coordinate decentralized decision making through a price. mechanism to bring supply and demand into equilibrium In this time tested. perspective capitalism is a largely self regulating economic system in which the. proper role of government is limited to providing certain basic public goods and. services at low cost Harvard Professor Gregory Mankiw the author of a leading. economics textbook and former Chairman of the President s Council of Economic. Advisors recently reminded readers of the Wall Street Journal of this point of view. claiming Adam Smith was right when he said that Little else is required to carry. a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace easy. taxes and a tolerable administration of justice 2 Smith s explanation for this. minimalist role for government was derived from his seminal insight that the. pricing mechanism would coordinate the actions of private actors so as to achieve. socially optimal outcomes Or in Smith s words As every. individual endeavours to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry and so. to direct that industry that its produce may be of greatest value every individual labours to. render the annual revenue of society as great as he can While he intends only his own. gain he is in this as in many other cases led by an invisible hand to promote an end. which was no part of his intention 3, However if market prices are to coordinate the actions of economic actors. so that they spontaneously maximize the revenues for society as well as for. individuals then those market prices must reflect true societal costs and benefits. While markets may well reflect such costs and benefits there are certain well. known situations where they fail to do so Externalities where certain costs and. benefits are not fully included in the market framework are the most immediate. exception to Smith s assumption Externalities reflect imperfections in the laws. and regulations that make up the market frameworks These imperfections cannot. legitimately be corrected by the economic actors themselves the corrections must. be made by a political authority i e government Furthermore any framework. must be modernized periodically in light of changing conditions and changing. societal priorities and this again requires government Unless the market. frameworks are appropriately adjusted including as circumstances change then. there can be no assurance that the maximization of individual incomes. approximates a similar outcome for society To say that little is required from. government but peace easy taxes and tolerable administration is to overlook the. essential role of government in providing the legal and regulatory frameworks. that are essential to capitalism It reduces the study of capitalism to the analysis of. 1 Bruce R Scott Chapter 2 Capitalism Democracy and Development June 27 2006. 2 Adam Smith as favorably cited by Gregory Mankiw The Wall Street Journal January 3 2006. Adam Smith Wealth of Nations Oxford World Classics pages 291 292. how markets operate in a static context that has assumed away the regulatory and. political issues, This chapter aims to introduce the political economy of capitalism in order. to take note of two modes of governmental intervention direct and indirect and to. highlight two differing roles of government administrative and entrepreneurial. The chapter begins with an austere definition of capitalism which calls attention to. the idea that capitalism is a socio political system as well as one that is economic I. will enhance this definition to include the notion that capitalism is an indirect. system of governing an economy wherein various economic actors are allowed to. compete to serve the needs of consumers according to a set of laws and rules and. where the ensuing competition serves to induce the mobilization of human energy. and talent as well as other resources for the benefit of society as well as the. economic actors themselves, Organized sports provide a useful analogy through which to gain insights. on capitalism Organized sports may be seen as having a three level system of. governance through which a political authority delegates the rules and. regulations that structure the game itself A capitalist society can be broken down. into a similar structure in which a political authority mobilizes resources to. provide and administer the infrastructure that facilitates and structures economic. activity Finally firms like sports teams compete within this structure After. presenting a three level model of capitalism I will look in more detail at each of. these levels to identify some of the key organs of a capitalist system. In order to illustrate the political and administrative roles of government. in a capitalist system I present three metaphoric market frameworks to show how. they can be shaped or tilted for reasons of policy I flesh out these ideas with two. examples of product markets that have been shaped for policy reasons and then. an example from the factor markets for labor In conclusion I suggest that. government plays an active and essential role in a well functioning capitalist. economy and not one that is either passive or peripheral. What is Capitalism, Capitalism is a system of governance for economic affairs that has emerged.
in different settings and continues to evolve over time As a consequence it evades. simple definition The Macmillan Dictionary of Modern Economics defines capitalism. Political social and economic system in which property including capital. assets is owned and controlled for the most part by private persons. Capitalism contrasts with an earlier economic system feudalism in that it is. characterized by the purchase of labor for money wages as opposed to the. direct labor obtained through custom duty or command in feudalism. Under capitalism the price mechanism is used as a signaling system which. allocates resources between uses The extent to which the price mechanism. is used the degree of competitiveness in markets and the level of. government intervention distinguish exact forms of capitalism 4. This austere definition identifies capitalism as a social political and. economic system that succeeded feudalism based upon recognition of the rights of. private parties to choose how to employ their labor and capital in markets as. indicated by market prices instead of tradition It recognizes the price mechanism. as its key coordinating device instead of command and control and suggests that. capitalist systems are distinguishable from one another based upon the extent and. nature of governmental interventions and the competitiveness of their markets. However this definition offers only a very brief introduction to the notion. of capitalism as a system It does not for example distinguish between direct and. indirect modes of governmental intervention nor its administrative and. entrepreneurial roles Governments may intervene directly in markets through. such actions as seizing land by eminent domain or nationalizing a firm. alternatively they may intervene indirectly by altering the institutional. foundations in which market transactions take place e g altering the size shape. or location of a market or altering the rights and responsibilities of various classes. of economic actors the rules of accounting and so on Government s roles and. modes of intervention can be shown in matrix form as in Figure 2 1. Figure 2 1 Governmental roles and modes of intervention. Roles Modes of intervention,Direct Indirect, Administrative Operate SOE Enforce laws regulations. Maintain infrastructure,Entrepreneurial Take property Pass new laws. Buy sell grow SOE Issue new regulations,Build new infrastructure. Government s indirect mode of intervention in the system may be invisible. to the untrained eye but this is in fact its crucial mode Price signals that are. transmitted through markets can coordinate the actions of economic actors. 4 Macmillan Dictionary of Modern Economics 3rd Ed 1986 p 54. without the need for plans or orders from government but there are no formal. markets without regulations and infrastructure and no legitimate regulations or. infrastructure unless they have been created maintained legitimated and if need. be modernized by a political authority Furthermore the definition gives no. indication that government has quite different roles in capitalism one largely. administrative in assuring the maintenance of the existing system and one. entrepreneurial in mobilizing power to achieve legislative authorization to make. changes whether in laws regulations or the provision of such public goods as. infrastructure the police force schools or public health system Figure 2 1 gives a. more complete sense of the roles of government and its modes of intervention In. this chapter and the next I will give examples from each of the four quadrants to. illustrate the various ways in which governmental action is essential to an effective. capitalist system, Capitalism as I define the term is an indirect system of governance based on a. complex and continually evolving political bargain in which private actors are empowered. by a political authority to own and control the use of property for private gain subject to a. set of laws and regulations Workers are free to work for wages capital is free to earn a. return and both labor and capital are free to enter and exit from various lines of business. Capitalism relies upon the pricing mechanism to balance supply and demand in markets it. relies on the profit motive to allocate opportunities and resources among competing. suppliers and it relies upon a political authority government to establish the rules and. regulations so that they include all appropriate societal costs and benefits Government and. its agents are held accountable to provide physical security for persons and property as well. as the laws and regulations Capitalist development is built from investment in new. technologies that permit increased productivity where a variety of initiatives are selected. through a Darwinian process that favors productive uses of those resources and from the. periodic modernization of the legal and regulatory framework as indicated by changing. market conditions and societal priorities Capitalist development requires that government. play two roles one administrative in providing and maintaining the institutions that. underpin capitalism and the other entrepreneurial in mobilizing power to modernize these. institutions as needed Capitalism contrasts with earlier economic systems characterized by. forced labor self sufficiency barter and or reciprocal relationships based upon family. tribe or locally known relationships It also contrasts with more recent systems where. governments have acted directly through ownership and or central planning to control of. the use of resources, Government s mode of intervention in a capitalist system is primarily.
indirect it creates legitimates administers and periodically modernizes the. various market frameworks that spell out the conditions in which the economic. actors may acquire and employ capital and labor to produce distribute and sell. goods and services Accordingly economic actors receive the right to use their. power in competition with others subject to prevailing laws and regulations The. market frameworks can have quite different policy priorities from protecting the. status quo to the promotion of growth and development from protecting. consumers to protecting producers and from protecting labor to protecting capital. Governments specify the responsibilities of the various participants in these. transactions e g for the safety and serviceability of the products as well as the. conditions under which they are produced and distributed Thus this indirect. system of governance inevitably embodies a strategy though this strategy is often. largely implicit rather than overt and created gradually over time rather than as a. grand plan, While successful capitalism depends upon the granting of power to private. actors to enter compete in and exit from markets it also depends upon the state s. power to restrain the private actors so that they do not abuse these powers To be. legitimate as well as productive private economic actors must be bound by the. rule of law and this rule of law must be backed by the coercive powers of the. state The powers of the state are employed to restrain the private actors from. breaking the rules and if need be to settle disputes Successful capitalism is. contingent upon a state monopoly of coercive powers. However the state s monopoly of legitimate coercive power implies that it. has the power to tyrannize its subjects As a result successful capitalism also. depends upon the creation of checks and balances established through the. structuring of the state s constituent branches executive legislative and judicial. and levels of government federal state and local to ensure that the state does not. encroach on the private spaces reserved for civil society Ultimately the alertness. and civic consciousness of society are essential if its elected representatives are to. limit the state s interventions in the marketplace and the temptations of state. officials to claim an excessive share of privately earned gains I explore the. political aspects of capitalist governance in the next chapter. Capitalist systems typically rely on the state to make direct provision of. certain public goods including highways schools and law enforcement as well as. to refrain from the temptation to own operate or directly control the economic. actors If the state does become a direct economic actor for example as the owner. of large enterprises it becomes a player as well as a referee This puts state agents. in roles that conflict for example as a regulator and as player that need not be. subject to the discipline of the markets There are times when states may play both. roles as in the case of a national emergency or natural monopoly but it is best if. these interventions are for reasons of state e g national security If direct. interventions are widespread and or last indefinitely they invite corruption and. the distortion of market frameworks for the benefit of the few at the expense of. society as a whole,Organized sports as an analog to capitalism. Capitalism involves a very complex set of relationships where many actors. have power and each has the capacity to influence how the system works At the. same time it is fundamentally different from any mechanical system in that its. components have regenerative powers and their relationships continue to evolve. through time Thus it is more usefully seen as a system that is organic or social. than one governed by rigid laws like physics, Organized sports provide a useful analogy to a capitalist economy The. comparison can be helpful because organized sports are smaller simpler systems. and therefore more easily understood as totalities Organized sports also evolve. but typically at a much more measured pace than the dynamic sectors of a. capitalist economy Most people have observed one or more organized sports and. are familiar with competition in a regulated context Thus they can distinguish. between a contest with rules and referees and an un refereed contest which can. deteriorate into a free for all While there are important similarities between. organized sports and capitalism we need to be aware of some differences as well. these differences between capitalism and organized sports will allow us to. highlight distinct characteristics of the former, All organized sports can be understood as three level systems as suggested. in Figure 2 2 The first level is the game itself in which athletes compete with one. another whether as individuals or as teams This competition is usually the focus. of audience attention we are concerned to see who wins or loses as well as how. the game is played However organized sports typically are not played in back. alleys or out in the tall weeds nor at random times among random assortments of. athletes Rather the actual competition usually unfolds in carefully marked out. areas at specific times under the supervision of a set of referees The use of an. explicit setting and set of rules for sports parallel capitalism s nascent beginnings. in the late middle ages when it was confined to specifically designated market. locations and market days and was often carried out according to a prescribed set. of rules often under the direct supervision of duly chartered guilds of registered. The infrastructure that guides the first level game then is created and. maintained by the administrative and regulatory officials who comprise the. second level More specifically these agents demarcate the field specify the rules. of play and the scoring system and monitor the play These agents organize and. legitimate the competition and ensure that it is carried out on a level playing field. with no unfair advantages permitted, But how do these institutional foundations arise and achieve legitimacy In.
organized sports as in capitalism a third level is required to complete the. system It is comprised of a political authority with the power to decide on the. rules i e who is eligible to compete the time and location of the games and. technologies that may be used In professional sports the political authority may. also have the power to set the terms and conditions for the distribution of certain. revenues among participating teams a power that can be exercised to limit. disparities in incomes by team thus curtailing the relative power of one or a few. teams to dominate the sport year after year 5, Figure 2 2 Organized sports including the Olympics operate on three levels. Organized Sports The Olympics,The political The International. authority Olympic,Institutional Regulations,foundations Referees etc. The games The Olympic Games, The Olympics are perhaps the oldest of organized sports and they are. organized as illustrated above Olympic competition is authorized by the. International Olympic Committee IOC a self selected group which meets. periodically to decide the time and location for the next competition the countries. that can participate and the different sports that are to be recognized in the. competition Subordinate political authorities establish the rules and hire the. judges to monitor competition Professional sports such as international football. soccer in US terms or US professional football are organized much the same. way the former under the authority of the International Amateur Football. In the United States the National Football League is widely recognized as the most socialistic of the. organized sports because the league authorities have the power to distribute the television revenues. approximately equally among teams despite the difference in the markets which they directly serve. Federation FIFA and the latter under the auspices of the National Football. League NFL, In sports as indeed in capitalism political authorities play two distinct.
roles one administrative in maintaining the existing system of playing fields and. enforcing the existing rules and the second entrepreneurial in mobilizing power. to win the needed votes in the legislature in order to admit new teams change the. locations or timing of competition change the rules and regulations and or. change the distribution of revenues Every time a political authority wishes to. enact change its leaders must mobilize enough power to overcome the forces that. wish to protect the status quo In organized sports the political leaders may have. gained their position of power through purchasing a league franchise to own a. professional team While they typically operate through political bodies e g an. executive and a legislature the members of the league legislature own their seats. and typically are not accountable to an independent electorate In addition the. entrepreneurial aspect of teams exercising political power in organized sports is. very different from that of firms exercising political power in democratic. capitalism insofar as the political authorities for most organized sports operate. under a grant of immunity from antitrust laws which allows them to govern their. league much like a state Teams in a sports league can sit together as a legislature. to revise the rules of play admit a new tam to the league and even to legislate a. split of revenues if they wish e g television revenues Firms can mobilize. lobbying power through trade associations but are not usually permitted to control. entry to their industry or to split revenues let alone rig prices. Capitalism as a three level system, Capitalism too can be viewed as a three level system as suggested in. Figure 2 3 On the first level the markets firms compete to secure their labor. and capital as well as to serve their customers The second level consists of the. basic institutional foundations including physical and social infrastructure. physical infrastructure includes among other things transportation and. communications and social infrastructure includes the educational public health. and legal systems In addition the second level consists of the agents of the state. who enforce the rules and regulations including specialized regulators who. oversee behavior in certain industries such as those that deal with food and drugs. or transportation and those who protect societal resources such as the physical. environment or safety in the workplace The third level consists of a political. authority typically one with specialized functions such as executive legislative. and judicial branches In turn a set of political institutions connect the political. authority to the political markets elections which may be more or less. democratic and eventually to civil society to which such an authority is. ultimately accountable I will connect the economic and political systems in. greater detail in the next chapter,Figure 2 3 Capitalism as a three level system. Political Authority,Institutional,Foundations,Economic Markets. Thus far I have argued that organized sports and capitalism are comparable. systems that operate on three levels But while there are many similarities. between organized sports and capitalism there are some crucial differences most. of which stem from fundamental differences in the purpose of the respective. systems The purpose of organized sports is to facilitate periodic competition. among athletes whether as individuals or in teams both to encourage and. recognize athletic excellence and to provide entertainment for the public To this. end each sporting contest starts anew teams are of equal size and the advantages. gained by a team during a game or a season are forfeited at the end of a season or. year In addition and crucially the entry of new teams is controlled by a system. of franchises that may only be granted by a sporting authority which acts under. an antitrust exemption and thus has sovereignty over its sporting league like a. state New leagues can be organized but each has its own jurisdiction. Capitalism is designed to promote the productive use of societal resources. in order meet consumer needs in the short run and to raise the standard of living. through time As a result its regulatory frameworks give priority to promoting. productivity rather than the fine points of equalizing competitive resources on a. given day or during a given season At the same time with rare exceptions. capitalism is regulated after the fact and not in real time the way organized sports. are The regulators do not stop the play to assess a foul nor halt the competition to. examine a controversial event via instant replay The economy moves on and. disputes are settled after the fact in court if need be. Since economies of scale will enhance productivity it follows that. capitalism generally permits the accumulation of advantages subject to certain. exceptions and certain limits on acceptable behavior It also follows that. capitalism permits teams i e firms of radically different sizes to enter and. exit industries without the approval of other participants and it permits the entry. of new competitors with new technologies that may give them an advantage over. all other competitors As a result capitalism permits and encourages multifaceted. competition among firms of different sizes using different resources on more than. a single playing field or industry at a time, The concept of the level playing field is used in capitalism as in sports but. capitalist competition though regulated is not designed to unfold between teams. that are equal nor circumstances that must be level Advantages such as a. playing field tilted in one s favor become possible sources of additional and. potentially cumulative advantages Since capitalism is designed to promote. productivity it can be expected to promote inequalities of income and wealth and. first movers in a technology may keep their advantages for decades Capitalist. competition is for keeps not for sport, As referenced in the introduction to this chapter prices coordinate decisions.
in terms of supply and demand for all manner of goods and services In addition. they coordinate supply and demand factor markets such as for labor capital. technology and most recently knowledge 6 This suggests that we need a more. detailed model of capitalism that recognizes different types of markets and the. roles of various economic actors And it also suggests that we need a model that. adds other elements to each of the levels in the system. Level One The Structure and Operations of Markets, Economic markets are of two distinct types product markets and factor markets. the two are necessary complements Product markets bring producers and consumers. together Factor markets bring various suppliers of labor and capital together with. producers of goods and services These archetypal markets are shown schematically in. Figure 2 4, Cite Warsh here on the new trend to seeing productive factors as people things and ideas. Figure 2 4 The Capitalist System Level One,Factor markets Product markets. Markets Owners Firm Consumers,Capital Goods,Source Bruce R Scott. Figure 2 4 identifies the principal economic actors as factor owners firms and. consumers and it calls attention to the distinction between factor markets and those for. products It sets the stage for the familiar graphs of micro economics that show how. prices coordinate the forces of supply and demand to achieve equilibrium In a quasi static. perspective firms produce more or fewer goods for sale depending upon expected prices in. a longer term perspective they compete to improve their products and services and their. internal operating efficiency As they compete they achieve gains in productivity that. benefit society as well as the respective economic actors. A much more refined view of how markets operate has been developed using the. industrial organization framework where the structural context of an industry is identified. as a basis for developing analyses of the performance of the industry in terms of variables. such as innovativeness prices and financial performance In addition the strategic options. of the firms can be analyzed in terms of their roles in this industrial structure These. analyses can be likened to the way sports announcers analyze team sports with their. commentaries on the respective team strategies during an individual game as well as their. perspective on the longer term strategies of teams in the acquisition of new players the. trading of existing players or perhaps moving the team to a new location. Level Two The Foundations of Capitalism, Markets are ubiquitous in poor countries as well as rich as Mancur Olson has.
pointed out 7 They exist in poor countries as well as rich One of the key distinguishing. features of developed countries is that their markets are underpinned by increasingly. sophisticated institutions which enable them to handle more complex transactions The. need for increased sophistication at level one requires changes in level two and this can. only be achieved through appropriate action at level three. Mancur Olson Power and Prosperity page 173, As we have noted above organized economic markets are dependent upon a set of. underlying institutions to give them their physical structure rules of permissible behavior. and a way of keeping score I emphasize the notion of organized markets because they are. fundamental to capitalism Someone can sell fruits and vegetables at an informal stand. along side a road in a rich farming area or sell carved animals or handmade jewelry at the. roadside as is common in some developing countries Unless these latter activities have a. permit to operate they are not part of a system of organized markets The buyer has no. assurance of the provenance of the goods probably receives no bill of sale and usually. pays in cash indicating that the transaction is part of the informal and typically untaxed. economy Informal transactions do indeed constitute trade but the formalization of. markets was an essential step in the creation of capitalism as we will see in Chapter 4. Prior to the advent of the railroad transport was very expensive except at waters. edge so the trading radius of a land locked consumer would typically be very small. perhaps as much as 80 of the goods and services consumed within a year were produced. within twenty miles of the point of consumption In such circumstances the vendor s. reputation was his bond bad merchandise would hurt future sales In addition failure to. pay was likely to end further extension of credit However in an economy where transport. is cheap a consumer can stop the car make a purchase and drive on perhaps never to. return In such circumstances unauthenticated goods can present a very substantial risk in. terms of health and or safety Increased formalization of property rights inspection. procedures and disclosure requirements become important pillars of market operations and. especially of the integration of markets over considerable distances A credit card perhaps. with instant authentication serves as a means of payment. The formalization of markets depends upon the creation and legitimation of an. appropriate set of institutions While the term institution frequently encompasses. organizations such as a central bank or a regulatory bureau I will try to stick to a more. restricted meaning of the term as laws rules and norms that either constrain or reward the. behavior of actors whether economic or political Thus as implied in Figure 2 5 laws and. regulations provide essential foundations for a market economy The dashed line in Figure. 2 5 denotes the dividing line between economic markets and their underlying foundations. The arrows note that the actors exercise influence in both directions. The foundations are comprised of four elements First there are broad policies that. have been established by the appropriate political authority in order to influence the macro. economy For example nation states have monetary fiscal social welfare and industrial. policies Second states also administer a number of regulatory regimes for the factor. markets such as land labor and capital as well as for the product markets For example. rules governing labor markets specify the rights of labor to organize or not to organize. and the protection of workers from dangerous employment The sale and usage of land is. governed by zoning regulations while credit markets are governed by rules on disclosure. of information about credit terms by lenders and equity markets have rules governing the. required disclosure of financial performance of firms that are listed on public stock. exchanges Product markets have rules for competition product safety and environmental. protection and the taxation of sales incomes or both Governments may establish. additional market frameworks for specific industries where these are special problems of. consumer safety e g for regulating the production and distribution of certain drugs or. dangerous chemicals,Figure 2 5,The Capitalist System Levels One and Two. Factor markets Product markets,Economic Factor Capital Goods. Markets services,institutional Policy Social Physical. framework regime Regulator Infrastructu,Source Bruce R Scott.
Third and fourth the state typically provides certain public goods that are. commonly available such as physical infrastructure e g roads and social infrastructure. e g schools public health and welfare organizations an air traffic control agency It. might also provide more specific types of social infrastructure in the form of academies to. train police mental health workers or other regulators States invest in physical and social. infrastructure because the private sector typically under invests in such goods and services. they require large investments and or continuing expenditures are designed for wide. availability and their very nature makes it difficult to exclude potential users and thus. difficult to recover costs plus an appropriate return through decentralized markets The. state lays an indirect role in the economy in the provision of these institutions one that is. quite different from direct intervention to socialize the commanding heights of. production as in traditional socialism implemented through state owned enterprises. In many economic analyses it is assumed that market frameworks take appropriate. account of societal costs and benefits But such frameworks are not created by an all wise. and disinterested observer they are created legitimated and administered by political and. regulatory authorities If the market frameworks do give appropriate weight to various. social costs and benefits it is because they have been formulated through political and. administrative processes that give appropriate weight to various interests or more broadly. give appropriate weight to the interests of the middle classes as distinct from the very rich. the very poor or various special interests To the extent that certain societal costs or. benefits are not recognized in the appropriate market framework they are referred to as.

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