Wanted: a better capitalism

May 13, 2011, 7:09 PM GMT+0

Much is wrong with today’s world. Governments are often bureaucratic and inefficient. Big companies care little for their communities or the environment. Who you know matters more than working hard and playing by the rules.

However, there is little appetite for the kind of radical change that many on the Left advocate. Few want to rip the market economy apart. Today’s demand is for greater security, not greater turbulence.

Those are the key findings of a major four-country survey by YouGov on attitudes to today’s society. We questioned representative samples in Germany, Great Britain, Sweden and the United States. Results of our survey challenge some of the conventional wisdom that is apt to swirl round this debate.

For example, we found that there is NO systematic difference in public opinion between the countries most associated with guided, 'European' capitalism – Germany and Sweden – and those that adopt a less regulated, free-market approach – Britain and America. On most issues, the range of public attitudes is broadly similar; where there are big differences, they seldom divide along the lines of Sweden/Germany versus Britain/US.

Moreover, on most issues we found that centre-left voters are NOT a distinct breed: their attitudes are generally much the same as the rest of their compatriots. As it happens, the country where voters divide most along ideological lines is the one with the LEAST history of ideological politics – the United States.

Our survey was conducted on behalf of the British think tank, Policy Network, ahead of a major conference in Oslo on Progressive Governance. In Britain, Germany and Sweden, left-of-centre parties have suffered their worst election defeats in recent times. The United States has a Democratic president – but the Republicans won last November’s mid-term elections hands down. Is social democracy simply experiencing a short-term, if unusually deep, cyclical downturn, or has it lost its appeal in a more fundamental sense? This what YouGov’s research was designed to explore.

Our research suggests four main lessons.

  1. Most people in all four countries share aspects of the social democratic critique of today’s world.
  2. Here are three statements we tested, and the net 'agree' figures (the proportion agreeing minus the proportion disagreeing) for each country
    ‘In general big companies in [country] these days care only about profits – not about the wider community or the environment'+81+78+49+56
    ‘Who you know is usually more important for getting on in life than hard work and playing by the rules’+50+27+42+17
    ‘However critical we are of particular government decisions, it remains the case that governments have the power to transform our society for the better’+32+30+34+14
    As those figures show, there are significant national differences; but all three statements attract clearly positive scores in all four countries.
  3. However, there is widespread scepticism about the competence of governments.
  4. Respondents were invited to pick two general advantages, from a list of four, of governments taking action to change society for the better – and then to pick two disadvantages, again from a list of four.The first point to make is that, in all four countries, more people saw disadvantages than advantages:
    % unable to cite any advantages50383258
    % unable to cite any disadvantages18162920
    Only in Sweden are the two figures even close; in the other three countries, the gulf is wide.In all four countries, more than 40% picked as a major disadvantage, that ‘the state is bureaucratic and inefficient’. None of the advantages reached 40% in any of the four countries. In three of the countries (Sweden was an exception) large numbers also selected the views that ‘the state is often hijacked by vested interests’, and that ‘the state is run by useless politicians’.
  5. Markets are seen as flawed but necessary
  6. As we have seen, big companies are widely thought to neglect the concerns of their communities and the wider environment. Our research also finds that most Britons, Germans and Americans, and almost have of all Swedes, think ‘the market economy is dominated by large corporations which squeeze out small firms’.Yet we found widespread approval of the market economy, when we tested this statement: ‘The market economy – that is, an economy where most goods and services are provided by private companies in a competitive system – is the best way of delivering wealth and prosperity for society’. Here are the results:
    Britain %Germany %Sweden %US %
    Neither agree nor disagree30263424
    Net agree+17+36+15+38
    As those figures show, many people decline to take sides. But in all four countries – and Germany and the US in particular – significantly more people agree than disagree. There seems to be little mileage in questioning the market economy in principle, even though many have doubts about the way big companies behave. In short, the demand is for capitalism to be improved but not threatened.
  7. Except in the US, centre-left voters are like most other voters
  8. For decades, the working assumption of politicians, academics and journalists has been that left-of-centre voters are fundamentally different from right-of-centre voters. I suspect that assumption often overstated the real differences; but whatever the historical position, our survey suggests that the differences these days are modest, at least in Europe.In the United States, however, Democrats are different from other Americans. Here are two illustrations of how attitudes converge in Europe but diverge in the US.
    Britain %Germany %Sweden %US %
    % able to cite major advantages of government taking action to change society for the better
    Supporters of centre-left parties52686070
    Everyone else49607025
    % personally willing to pay higher taxes if there were a guarantee that the extra money would be used to improve healthcare, increase benefits for retired people and provide more money for schools
    Supporters of centre-left parties52507168
    Everyone else38405122
    The striking thing is not that centre-left voters differ from everybody else – but that, in Europe, they differ so little. (In Sweden, Social Democrats are less able than the rest of the public to cite any advantages of government action.)The lesson for centre-left parties is double-edged. It is an article of faith for social democratic politicians round the world that governments should act to protect and advance the common interest. However, our survey shows that they should not assume that their supporters long for higher taxes or other government action. On the other hand, they should not assume that all right-of-centre voters condemn government intervention or even higher taxes. Only in the United States, which used to be regarded as shunning ideological differences, do supporters of the two main parties belong to clearly contrasting political tribes.It’s important to remember that surveys such as these measure public perceptions, rather than objective reality. It is perfectly possible to argue that millions of people are excessively sceptical about the motivations of large companies or the competence of government-run services. However, perceptions drive votes and decide elections.What our survey suggests is that the central task of social democratic parties, at least in Europe, is no longer to dream big dreams of a radically different society. Rather they face two big challenges: to persuade voters that they are able to run the government machine and deliver public services competently and efficiently; and to find ways to curb the antisocial behaviour of big companies without discouraging their dynamism. Compared with the historic ambitions of the Left, I grant that these goals lack passion and the power to inspire. But I am not sure that they are any easier to reach.See the full results and survey details across all four countries; Britain, Germany, Sweden and the USSee the full results and survey details across left-leaning political party supportersSee the full results and survey details for Britain