The mission economy

We all work for capitalism. Our society is driven by the needs of the economy. But it should be the other way around. The economy should be driven by the needs of society. Capitalism should work for us. And so governments around the world need to be much more proactive, and much more confident, in identifying critical social challenges and in bringing the full power of the public, private and community sectors to bear in addressing them.

In Mission Economy, economist Mariana Mazzucato argues that governments should seek out ‘missions’ to transform society, just as JFK set out the mission to put a man on the moon and to bring him safely home again. And they should coordinate all economic actors – governments, companies, charities, individuals – in working to achieve them. This will allow us, she says, to bring a higher level of strategic purpose to the creation of economic and social value.

At the moment, governments seek to achieve economic growth by creating free markets and then keeping out of the way until something needs to be fixed. But, says Mazzucato, growth has not only a rate but also a direction. And that direction should have purpose. It should seek to address things like accessible healthcare, bridging the digital divide and responding to the climate emergency.

In making her case for greater purpose in government action, Mazzucato delivers a stinging critique of the way governments currently see their role in respect of the market and of the economy as a whole. She debunks the myth, for example, that it is only business that take risks and creates value. And she explains how the trend to outsource practically everything to the private sector leaves government poorly-equipped to manage projects and to bring about change.

Mazzucato is also a stern critic of the way in which, when it comes to government investment in new ideas or technologies, the risk inherent to this investment is socialised (i.e. borne by all of us), while any rewards are invariably privatised (i.e. received by companies and their investors). To combat this, she says, governments need to be much more confident in targeting investment, in crafting procurement contracts and funding conditions, and in making sure that the public sector retains a stake in whatever is being funded. I could draw out further nuggets, but it’s probably easier for you to just read the book.

To anyone who has read The Entrepreneurial State, one of Mazzucato’s previous books, some of these arguments will appear familiar. Indeed, there’s a considerable degree of cross-over between these two books, particularly in Mission Economy‘s earlier chapters. But the COVID-19 pandemic, the growing debate around access to healthcare, the increase in digital schooling and working, and the growing threat of the climate crisis have created a situation where the ideas Mazzucato sets out go from being a ‘nice to have’ to an absolute necessity.

If I were being critical, I’d suggest that the confluence of all of these factors has perhaps led to this book being rushed out slightly. Or even written specifically to get these ideas ‘out there’ at this crucial time. The arguments in the early chapters repeat Mazzucato’s previous work. And the latter chapters, while insightful and well worth reading, don’t quite have the clear narrative thread that is evident in the rest of the book and seem to land in a grey zone between exploring the theory and considering how to implement it in practice.

Mazzucato’s latest book is nevertheless a great read. It should, I’d suggest, be considered essential (and urgent) reading for anyone with an interest in public policy, economics or public sector management. The ‘mission’ economy is a powerful and compelling concept. Our challenge now is to make it happen.

You can buy Mission Economy from your local independent bookshop. If you don’t have a local independent bookshop, you can order it from Alistair and Chloe at Books on the Hill in Clevedon, Somerset, which is my local independent bookshop.

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