The pioneer’s dilemma. Miguel Ors Villarejo

Xavier Sala i Martín told me a few years ago that if the Chinese had told him in 1978 that “they thought to start up a capitalist system, but with limited property rights, I would have thrown them out of my office”. At that time began to crystallize what John Williamson, a researcher at the Peterson Institute, baptized later as the Washington Consensus and that, in one of those traditional pendulums of economic theory, postulated the return to the market after the interventionist excesses of Keynesianism. “Stabilizing, privatizing and liberalizing became the mantra of a generation of technocrats,” writes Dani Rodrik.

If one looks at what has happened since then, progress seems undeniable: in the last four decades, poverty has been reduced by 80%, as my colleague Diego Sánchez de la Cruz explains. However, the reasons for this extraordinary progress are far from clear, because by analysing the results country by country one can see that where there has been growth there has not been so much Washington Consensus and where there has been Washington Consensus there has not been so much growth.

The most notorious example is China. Its success, says Rodrik in another work, “raises many questions.” Liberal orthodoxy prescribes poor patients to dismantling of barriers to imports, the full convertibility of the currency and the rule of law but considering this recipe the Chinese have not been able to do worse: they maintained tariffs and monetary controls and its rule of law is manifestly improvable. How have they managed to grow as they have grown?

Normally, capital avidly seeks cheap labour to exploit, but that cheap labour was there before 1978, and continues to be in many other places in Africa and Latin America where, however, no one considers investing a penny. There is no more coward animal than a million dollars and it is not easy to attract it, because being a pioneer involves many uncertainties. It is very well explained by Reginald, a character from Saki: “Do not ever be a pioneer,” he tells his dearest friend. “The first Christian is the one who takes the fattest lion.”

In the same way, the first investor is exposed to losing all his flows. Only when the adventure succeed others will be encouraged, just like those penguins that wait at the edge of the iceberg for someone else to jump to make sure there are no killer whales. Meanwhile, the pioneer’s dilemma works as a powerful disincentive and no one jumps.

How did Beijing solve it? Unwittingly, probably. Western investors had been operating in Hong Kong for decades. Many farmers crossed illegally to the colony looking for opportunities and, tired of arresting them and the bad publicity that this entailed, the officials thought: why don´t we set up factories on this side of the border and avoid leaks? In Hong Kong they were also running out of land and therefore it made perfect sense to set up a special economic zone (SEZ) in Shenzhen, a neighbouring village of 30,000 inhabitants that today exceeds 23 million.

What came next is a combination of improvisation and good luck. Deng Xiaoping would probably have preferred to generalize the reforms to the whole nation, as Boris Yeltsin did in Russia and the IMF’s technocrats defended, but the resistance of the Communist Party forced him to adopt a gradual strategy. He had to be satisfied with promoting more SEZs, to which he conferred enormous autonomy. This lack of coordination made it possible for local authorities to experience initiatives of all kinds: those that worked were exported to other regions and those that didn´t were closed without remorse. In no other society has Schumpeter’s creative destruction been applied so mercilessly. Only the determination of convinced Marxists could bring capitalism to its ultimate consequences.

Although Joshua Cooper Ramo speaks of a Beijing Consensus, few believe that it is a true model. “There was no architect,” says historian Zhang Lifan. From the academic point of view, the economic script of China is full of bizarre twists and I’m not surprised that Sala would throw out of his office anyone who would have tried to tell him. “No way!” (Traducción: Isabel Gacho Carmona)

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