From medieval Venice to Renaissance Florence and the Dutch lowlands, and “then most spectacularly in Britain and America”, the advance of liberalism has always shadowed the advance of capitalism, says Adrian Wooldridge in Bloomberg. But while you can’t have liberalism without capitalism, “you can certainly have capitalism without liberalism”. Coca-Cola sponsored the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany; today, China is pioneering an “idiosyncratic synthesis of market mechanisms with Leninist power”. Western capitalism is also taking an illiberal turn: a few companies are consolidating enormous influence. In America, the top 0.1% of firms now control 88% of all assets, up from 47% in the 1930s. As the tech billionaire Peter Thiel says: “Competition is for losers.”
In politics, these behemoths “set the terms of debate” by funding think tanks and pressure groups, and sometimes write the legislation themselves. They openly engage in tax-avoidance and other shenanigans that were “once confined to the backstreets”. Apple has a “cozy deal with Ireland”; Google once achieved a 2.4% tax rate on its non-American profits by routing them through Bermuda, Ireland and the Netherlands. The “insider privilege” of today’s capitalism poses a profound threat to a central liberal principle: meritocracy. There are, however, “welcome signs” of a fightback. America has opened an antitrust case against Google, and the EU is penalising tech companies for invading privacy. For all the threat to the liberal order from radicalism, “we need to pay much more attention to the threat coming from capitalism itself”.