Greed is good ... but only if the greedy don't collude

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 October, 2010, 12:00am

If Hong Kong were able to hold a referendum on the Basic Law, Article 5 - which protects the capitalist system and its way of life - would be passed straight away and unanimously.

Recent debates on whether Hong Kong society at large hates the wealthy (for example, land developers) and the powerful (that is, senior officials), and the various interpretations of the values of the elite, are off the mark and out of focus.

Some people said such debates reflect the influence of leftist thought, pointing the finger in particular at the ideas of the League of Social Democrats. This analysis is inaccurate. First, the league does not have the clout to direct such trends. Second, Hongkongers are still emotionally attached to capitalist ideas and the free market.

So what do we actually care about? In fact, what is capitalism or, rather, what is not capitalism?

When one particular group of economic elites gains crucial advantages, becomes too successful, and begins to collude with one another instead of competing, capitalism can easily turn into corporatism. We can call it cronyism, to use a more progressive term, or hegemony, should we wish to use neo-Marxist terminology.

No one doubts that Hong Kong is heading in that direction. The corporatist setting has manifested itself in the parochial installation of functional constituencies in the Legislative Council. Cronyism is apparent in the administration's appointments to statutory committees. Hegemony can be seen everywhere, even without walking into a ParknShop, a Watsons, or other stores.

But corporatism, cronyism and hegemony are not capitalism. Likewise, unbridled capitalism is not capitalism per se. The free market, fair competition and, more importantly, an impartial and bipartisan administration that regulates commercial activities, are the real essence of capitalism.

Article 5 of the Basic Law states that 'Hong Kong maintains a free and open market economy with a free flow of capital, goods, intangible assets and a freely convertible currency.'

Such freedom feeds the entrepreneurial spirit. In the film Wall Street, the character Gordon Gekko says: 'Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind.'

A free market of ideas and capital can indeed improve people's lives.

Hongkongers, including the pseudo-socialists among them, readily accept that the market system is the best mechanism to create wealth and innovation, and thus, have never thought of rolling back capitalism.

John Stuart Mill argued that free speech is crucial to the pursuit of truth, because discussion of different opinions serves to challenge and clarify beliefs.

In a free economic market, competition gives rise to challenges to the status quo and breeds innovation. The state should regulate the market for the sake of fair competition and avoiding monopolies, legislate against selling goods that are unsafe or don't meet certain standards, and against false claims and assertions about goods. An efficient, effective and responsible regulatory regime would also ban insider trading. Hong Kong people do not want a 'nanny state' that, for example, helps those who cannot afford to buy their own home, or bans chewing gum.

We don't hate the rich and powerful; rather, if hatred exists, unbridled capitalism, cronyism, corporatism and hegemony are the real targets.

Danny Wai-hang Tsui is chief campaigner of Roundtable Pioneers and a former vice-president of the Hong Kong University students' union