The dearth of debate about the free market and economic policy

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

 In Thailand today there is a lack of debate about the free market and economic policy. An important reason is the weakness of the Left. On a global scale, since the neo-liberal consensus of the 1980s, it has been the Left which has traditionally criticised free market policies by posing alternative economic strategies. In Thailand this left-wing opposition has been very weak, especially because the main force on the Thai Left was the Maoist Communist Party of Thailand (CPT). The influence of Maoism has tended to “dumb-down” economic and political theory and led to a failure to understand of the horrors of the free market.

At a gathering of ex-comrades from the CPT some years ago, I was told by a now prosperous businessman that his knowledge of Marx’s Capital helped him in his private business. Another ex-comrade, who was a poor villager, told me that Marx’s Capital showed him how to understand corruption. It is doubtful if either of these ex-comrades had actually read Capital because the CPT never translated it into Thai and discouraged party members from studying Marxism. The only text which comrades were allowed to read were the writings of Chairman Mao.

This ignorance of political economy was inherited by NGO activists who came out of the CPT. In the late 1990s, NGO documents on “reform” would uncritically support privatisation of energy utilities. Those who were “anti-capitalist” advocated utopian village-level self-sufficiency rather than planning modern production for need.

The lack of opposition to neo-liberal market forces in Thailand has meant that the neo-liberals have a near monopoly on policy. Two notable exceptions were the “dual track” policy of the Taksin government, which mixed grass-roots Keynesianism and free-market policies and a national level, and the attitude to drug company patents by AIDS NGO activists. The latter example was a result of learning the nasty reality of the impact of the free market from bitter experience. However, since NGOs concentrate on single issues, there was no generalised critique of the market. Such a critique was only produced by the socialist group of which I was a member.

I once had the misfortune to attend a training session, organised by academics, in order to “teach” villagers about privatisation. All the speakers were advocates of the free market and talked as though it was “common sense” that the market brought about efficiency. This was after the free-market driven economic crisis of 1996. Another glaring example of the result of the free-market is the terrible state of traffic in Bangkok.

When I was teaching political economy and politics at Chulalongkorn University, I asked a colleague about which economic schools of thought he taught when considering hospital and public health administration. “Are there actually different political economy approaches to the management of health care?” he asked me in surprise.

Well, there are. But you would not know it from the glowing reports written in the media about the view of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Recently, Ammar Siamwalla, a founding member of the TDRI, criticised the fact that there was no proper separation between “purchaser” and “provider” in the public health ministry. As an employee of the British National Health Service (NHS), I can confirm that the introduction of an internal market into the NHS by Margaret Thatcher, and the continued neo-liberal policies of Tony Blair and David Cameron’s governments have seriously degraded health care in the UK. Millions are spent on employing admin staff like me in the pointless process of accounting. Money that could be used for treating patients is diverted away to administration of market forces. Privatised market competition and devolved budgets have allowed huge cuts in health care funding to be hidden from view. These cuts depress wages and have a negative effect on patient care. The alternative is to plan “need” and then plan a budget based on this need without any internal market. This was how the NHS was originally set up.

When the Thai media report on Ammar Siamwalla they always refer to him as a “much respected economist”. No articles call him a raving free market extremist. A few years ago, when some of us on the Left were campaigning for a welfare state, this “much respected economist” claimed that he could not imagine any way in which a welfare state could be established in Thailand. He obviously was not going to bother to study examples from Europe! Naturally, the TDRI were vehemently opposed to Yingluk’s rice support scheme, which benefitted 3.5 million families, either directly or indirectly. The TDRI is also in favour of extending the retirement age of people who work a 6 day week already and it is against a standard national minimum wage. Each time a TDRI report comes out, it is treated as a “bible”. Homage to the free-market has even been enshrined in all constitutions since 1997, alongside the King’s Sufficiency Economy ideology

In Thailand there are only “economic experts” and there are no debates about political economy.