Field of Science

Too Important to Fail?

The federal government is set to take over mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Earlier this summer, the government rescued the investment bank Bear Stearns. In each case it was decided that, even though the companies were in trouble of their own making, the damage caused by their failure would be too great for the economy to bear.

Strictly speaking, this isn't how our economy is supposed to work. It's supposed to be survival of the fittest: the companies that make the best decisions survive, and others fail. In this way good practices are rewarded, better business models evolve, and society progresses.

The problem is that, as part of this evolutionary process, the US economy has become increasingly interdependent. Companies need each other to survive, so that if a big one goes down it could take others with it. In the cases of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Bear Stearns, it was deemed that the failure of these companies would take out entire sectors of the economy, and as a country we couldn't let that happen.

I won't argue the merits of these decisions, but I'm interested in what they say about our economy. We're accustomed to thinking of our economy in terms of a system of competing animals. If one dies, others arise to take its place. But it may turn out our economy is more like another system: the human body, wherein if one part fails, the system suffers as a whole.

If this is true, then the whole of economic theory is based on an incorrect assumption. We may have some fundamental rethinking to do about how our economy works and why.

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