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Posts Tagged ‘Free Markets’

I’ve had ample reason to praise Hong Kong’s economic policy.

Most recently, it was ranked (once again) as the world’s freest economy.

And I’ve shown that this makes a difference by comparing Hong Kong’s economic performance to the comparatively lackluster (or weak) performance of economies in the United States, Argentina, and France.

But perhaps the most encouraging thing about Hong Kong is that the nation’s top officials genuinely seem to understand the importance of small government.

Here are some excerpts from a recent speech delivered by Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary. He brags about small government and low tax rates!

Hong Kong has a simple tax system built on low tax rates. Our maximum salaries tax rate is 15 per cent and the profits tax rate a flat 16.5 per cent. Few companies and individuals would find it worth the risk to evade taxes at this low level. And that helps keep our compliance and enforcement costs low. Keeping our government small is at the heart of our fiscal principles. Leaving most of the community’s income and wealth in the hands of individuals and businesses gives the private sector greater flexibility and efficiency in making investment decisions and optimises the returns for the community. This helps to foster a business environment conducive to growth and competitiveness. It also encourages productivity and labour participation. Our annual recurrent government expenditure has remained steady over the past five years, at 13 per cent of GDP. …we have not responded irresponsibly to…populist calls by introducing social policies that increase government spending disproportionally. …The fact that our total government expenditure on social welfare has remained at less than 3 per cent of our GDP over the past five years speaks volumes about the precision, as well as the effectiveness, of these measures.

And he specifically mentions the importance of controlling the growth of government, which is the core message of Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

Our commitment to small government demands strong fiscal discipline….It is my responsibility to keep expenditure growth commensurate with growth in our GDP.

Is that just empty rhetoric?

Hardly. Here’s Article 107 from the Basic Law, which is “the constitutional document” for Hong Kong

The most important part of Article 107, needless to say, is that part of keeping budgetary growth “commensurate with the growth rate of its gross domestic product.”

The folks in Hong Kong don’t want to wind up like Europe.

Last year, I set up a Working Group on Long-term Fiscal Planning to conduct a fiscal sustainability health check. We did it because we are keenly aware of Hong Kong’s low fertility rate and ageing population, not unlike many advanced economies. And that can pose challenges to public finance in the longer term. A series of expenditure-control measures, including a 2 per cent efficiency enhancement over the next three financial years, has been rolled out.

And, speaking of Europe, he says the statist governments from that continent should clean up their own messes before criticizing Hong Kong for being responsible.

I would hope that some of those governments in Europe, those that have accused Hong Kong of being a tax haven, would look at the way they conduct their own fiscal policies. I believe they could learn a lesson from us about the virtues of small government.

Just in case you think this speech is somehow an anomaly, let’s now look at some slides from a separate presentation by different Hong Kong officials.

Here’s one that warmed my heart. The Hong Kong official is bragging about the low-tax regime, which features a flat tax of 15 percent!

But what’s even more impressive is that Hong Kong has a very small burden of government spending.

And government officials brag about small government.

By the way, you’ll also notice that there’s virtually no red ink in Hong Kong, largely because the government focuses on controlling the disease of excessive spending.

Why is government small?

In large part, as you see from the next slide, because there is almost no redistribution spending.

Indeed, officials actually brag that fewer and fewer people are riding in the wagon of dependency.

Can you imagine American lawmakers with this kind of good sense?

None of this means that Hong Kong doesn’t have any challenges.

There are protests about a lack of democracy. There’s an aging population. And there’s the uncertainty of China.

But at least for now, Hong Kong is a tribute to the success of free markets and small government.

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Divided government is good for America’s economy.

Or, to be more specific, divided government is a net plus if the alternative is to have statists fully in charge of economic policy.

I made this point back in 2012 when I pointed out that the unemployment rate started falling after Republicans captured the House of Representatives, and we got further good results when gridlock led to an end to extended unemployment benefits, first in North Carolina and then the entire country.

We also see positive evidence in the new rankings from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, which was published this week.

As you can see from this chart, the United States fell in 2010 to #18 in this global ranking of economic liberty, but now America has improved to #12.

That’s still far below our #3 ranking when Bill Clinton left office, so we’re still paying a high price for the statist policies of both Bush and Obama, but at least we’re finally moving back in the right direction.

If you look at the underlying data, you can see why America’s score has increased since 2010.

There was a slight improvement in the scores for trade and regulation, but that was offset by declines in the scores for monetary policy and property rights.

Fiscal policy is the area where there was a significant improvement for the United States, which matches with my data showing that sequestration and the Tea Party made a big difference by significantly slowing the growth of government spending.

But the improvement over the past two years, as noted above, is small compared to the decline in the previous 10 years.

Here’s how Economic Freedom of the World describes America’s fall.

The 7.81 chain-linked rating of the United States in 2012 is more than 8/10 of a point lower than the 2000 rating. What accounts for the US decline? While US ratings and rankings have fallen in all five areas of the EFW index, the reductions have been largest in the Legal System and Protection of Property Rights (Area 2)… The plunge in Area 2 has been huge. In 2000, the 9.23 rating of the United States was the 9th highest in the world. But by 2012, the area rating had plummeted to 6.99, placing it 36th worldwide. …the increased use of eminent domain to transfer property to powerful political interests, the ramifications of the wars on terrorism and drugs, and the violation of the property rights of bondholders in the auto-bailout case have weakened the tradition of strong adherence to the rule of law in United States. …To a large degree, the United States has experienced a significant move away from rule of law and toward a highly regulated, politicized, and heavily policed state.

Geesh, we’re becoming another Argentina.

Looking at the big picture, a falling score is not a trivial issue.

The decline in the summary rating between 2000 and 2012 on the 10-point scale of the index may not sound like much, but scholarly work on this topic indicates that a one-point decline in the EFW rating is associated with a reduction in the long-term growth of GDP of between 1.0 and 1.5 percentage points annually (Gwartney, Holcombe, and Lawson, 2006). This implies that, unless policies undermining economic freedom are reversed, the future annual growth of the US economy will be only about half its historic average of 3%.

Amen. This is why I worry so much about the corrosive impact of big government.

Now let’s look at the overall ratings for all nations. The chart is too large to show all nations, so here are the nations with the most economic freedom.

You shouldn’t be surprised to see that Hong Kong and Singapore own the top two spots.

Other nations with very high scores include New Zealand, Switzerland, Mauritius, UAE, Canada, Australia, Jordon and Chile.

Getting a good score today, however, is no guarantee of getting a good score in the future.

I’ve already expressed concern about Australia moving in the wrong direction, but I’m even more worried about Chile. That nation’s socialist President is making very bad moves on fiscal policy, and also is trying to undermine her country’s very successful system of school choice.

But it would take a lot of bad policy for Chile to drop down to the level of Venezuela, which has the dubious honor of being in last place.

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In addition to his side job as Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Economics Department at Harvard University, Jeff Miron is Director of Economic Studies at the Cato Institute.

He’s also the narrator of this video from Learn Liberty that discusses three myths about capitalism.

Unsurprisingly, I think Jeff is right on the mark. Here are some of my thoughts on the three myths, but I’ll take a different approach. I’ll state the truth and then add my two cents to Jeff’s debunking.

1. Capitalism is pro-consumer, not pro-business.

I think the myth about a link between capitalism and big business arises because defenders of free markets often are in the position of opposing taxes, regulations, and mandates that also are opposed by the business community. But for some reason, many people overlook the fact that those same advocates of free markets also oppose cronyist policies that are widely supported by big business, such as Export-Import Bank, the so-called stimulus, TARP, and Obamacare. Part of the problem may be that far too many Republicans actually are pro-business instead of pro-free market.

2. Capitalism rewards those who best serve others.

In a genuine free market, you can only become rich by providing goods and services that are valued by others. But I think the myth that capitalism leads to unfair distribution of wealth exists for two reasons. First, a non-trivial number of people actually think the economy is a fixed pie, so they assume a rich person’s wealth came at the expense of the rest of us. This is obviously wrong. The second reason is that some people do get rich because of government intervention and coercion. This is true, of course, but as discussed in the video and in my remarks above, cronyism, handouts, bailouts, and subsidies are the opposite of capitalism.

3. Capitalism can’t work without failure and bankruptcy.

Regarding the myth that capitalism caused the financial crisis, I’ve already explained that bad monetary policy and corrupt subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac deserve the lion’s share of the blame. So I want to focus on the bailouts that occurred once the economy soured. There’s a semi-famous saying that “capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.” Unfortunately, politicians feel a compulsion to shield people (especially if they’re politically powerful) from the consequences of bad decisions. That’s not capitalism. And I’m not just making an ideological point. For those who think that the financial system needed to be recapitalized, the “FDIC resolution” approach would have achieved everything we got with TARP, but without rewarding people who made bad decisions.

My only complaint about the video is that it was too short and didn’t address some of the other viewpoints that undermine support for capitalism.

I don’t know if these are myths, per se, but they certainly are mental roadblocks we need to overcome to build more support for a free society.

4. Some people crave security.

Capitalism is all about opportunity, but that also means uncertainty. And for those who crave predictability and security, that makes them uncomfortable. And I suspect they would be uncomfortable even if you showed them all the evidence that capitalism leads to far more wealth in the long run. Simply stated, they worry about falling through the cracks. When trying to convince these people, I point to the collapsing welfare state in Europe and argue that there’s far less long-run security in a society where everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.

5. Some rich people are jerks.

Whether it’s being obnoxious or ostentatious, people with a lot of money sometimes give capitalism a bad name. And that’s true even if they are genuine capitalists rather than cronyists. It doesn’t help that a lot of what comes out of Hollywood routinely paints rich people and big business as bad guys. By the way, it could very well be the case that there are fewer bad people, per capita, among the rich when compared to the rest of us. But the ones that are jerks get a disproportionate share of attention. And since I mentioned Hollywood, it is a bit of a mystery that becoming uber-rich by acting (or singing or in sports) doesn’t seem to arouse as much envy. Yet I strongly suspect those people are far more likely to engage in unseemly behavior. Go figure.

6. Some businesses try to rip off consumers.

While free markets in the long run reward honesty and punish bad behavior, that doesn’t mean much to a person who has been ripped off, whether by a local contractor or a big multinational. The fact that there are bad people, though, isn’t an argument against capitalism. After all, bad people are quite likely to obtain power in a big-government society. And backed by the coercive power of the state, they’ll have much greater ability to do bad things.

P.S. If you want to know the practical difference between capitalism and socialism, check out this image.

P.P.S. The most free-market place in North America is not in the United States.

P.P.P.S. We live in a strange world when Bono is more pro-market than the Pope.

P.P.P.P.S. Statists like to criticize free markets, but they sure seem to enjoy the fruits of capitalism.

P.P.P.P.P.S. I also suspect statists think free markets are bad because they equate capitalism with rich people and the wealthy folks they know are more likely to have obtained their money dishonestly.

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I want to challenge supporters of intervention and big government. Here are two simple questions. I’ll be happy if I can get a semi-reasonable answer to either of them.

1. Can you name a nation that became rich with statist policies?

Before you say Sweden, or even France, note that I asked you to name a nation that became rich during a period when it followed policies of interventionism and big government. Countries in Western Europe became rich during the 1800s and early 1900s when government was very small. Indeed, government spending consumed only about 10 percent of economic output in Western Europe prior to World War I and there was almost no redistribution. That’s more libertarian than what you find today in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

Speaking of which, what I’m really asking my leftist friends is that they give me the left-wing versions of Hong Kong and Singapore. These jurisdictions were relatively impoverished at the end of World War II, but they are now both very rich by global standards. And libertarians and other advocates of small government and free markets can make a very strong case that good policy played a role in their amazing rise to prosperity.

So where’s the role model for statists? What nation can they put forth as a successful example?

I won’t hold my breath waiting for an accurate answer.

Now for the other part of the challenge.

2. Can you name a nation that with interventionism and big government that is out-performing a similar nation with free markets and small government?

Before you embarrass yourself by asserting that, say, Denmark is richer than Paraguay because of statism, you need to look at the data. Denmark has a bigger welfare state than Paraguay, but it’s much more pro-market in other respects. Indeed, it is ranked #14 in the Economic Freedom of the World, compared to #89 for Paraguay. You’d be more clever to ask why, for example, #42 Belgium is richer than #6 Mauritius.

But this is why I asked for a comparison of similar nations. In other words, find two countries that are, or were, roughly equal in terms of demographics, economic development, resource endowments, and other factors. And then I want an example of a nation with statist policy that has out-performed a nation that instead chose small government and free markets. Or the jurisdictions don’t even need to be that similar. Just show me a statist nation that grows faster, over a meaningful period of time, than a pro-market jurisdiction.

From a libertarian perspective, I can cite lots of examples, such as Chile vs. Argentina vs. Venezuela. Or North Korea vs. South Korea. Or Ukraine vs. Poland. Or Hong Kong vs. Argentina. Or Singapore vs. Jamaica. Or the United States vs. Hong Kong and Singapore. Or even Sweden vs. Greece. I could continue, but I think you get the point.

I will patiently wait for my left-wing friends to provide examples that support their perspective, but cobwebs will form before they fulfill my challenge.

In the meantime, here’s a video that explains the simple recipe that countries should follow if they want to enjoy growth and prosperity.

You’ll notice that the video heavily borrows from Economic Freedom of the World.

That’s no surprise. There’s no better source for making apples-to-apples comparisons to see whether countries are following good policy.

The bad news is that the United States has taken a dive in the wrong direction in these rankings.

When Bill Clinton left office, the United States had the world’s 3rd-freest economy. Today, thanks to years of statism under both Bush and Obama, we’ve dropped to #17.

This Lisa Benson cartoon is a very painful illustration of what’s happening.

America is copying the nations that are in deep trouble because of excessive government.

Which is the same message you find in this Glenn Foden cartoon and this Michael Ramirez cartoon.

But maybe some leftist can answer one or both of the questions above and we can stop worrying about the ever-expanding welfare state.

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I very rarely feel sorry for statists. After all, these are the people who think that their feelings of envy and inadequacy justify bigger and more coercive government.

And I get especially irked when I think about how their authoritarian policies will hurt the most vulnerable in society.

But I nonetheless feel sorry for statists when I see them fumble, stumble, duck, and weave when asked why global evidence contradicts them.

In other words, it’s almost painful to watch when they are asked  why nations with varying degrees of statist policy – such as Venezuela, France, the United States (under Obama), Argentina, and Greece – suffer from economic stagnation and decline.

And it’s equally uncomfortable to watch them struggle and squirm when they’re asked to explain why jurisdictions with more pro-market policies – such as Bermuda, Estonia, Switzerland, the United States (under Reagan), Chile, and Singapore – tend to enjoy growth and rising living standards.

However, I can’t help adding to their discomfort. Let’s look at more evidence.

Here’s some of what Richard Rahn wrote for the Washington Times about Hong Kong’s economic miracle.

Hong Kong is about as close to the ideal free-market capitalist model that you can find on the planet — which came about largely by accident. …The British basically left Hong Kong to fend for itself… here was no foreign aid and no welfare state — but there was a competent government that kept the peace, ran an honest court system with the rule of law, provided some basic infrastructure, and little more. Also, Hong Kong had economic freedom — for the last several decades, Hong Kong has been ranked as the freest economy in the world (according to Economic Freedom of the World Index). Economic freedom allowed the people to create an endless number of productive enterprises, and because they had free trade, they could import necessary goods and services to fuel these enterprises. …average real income has gained parity with the United States, and it will probably be double that of France in a couple of years.

By the way, if you don’t believe the last sentence in that excerpt, check out this remarkable chart.

But the big takeaway is that free markets and small government have made the people of Hong Kong very rich. Gee, it’s almost as if there’s a recipe to follow if you want prosperity.

Let’s look at another example. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, former Senator Phil Gramm and Michael Solon compare economic policy and outcomes in Ukraine and Poland.

They explain that statist policies in Ukraine have stymied growth in a nation that otherwise could be very prosperous.

There is no better modern example of the power of an economic triumph than the experience of Ukraine and Poland in the post-Cold War era. …Ukraine has largely squandered its economic potential with pervasive corruption, statist cronyism and government control. …The per capita income of Ukraine, in U.S. dollar equivalence, has grown to only $3,900 in 2013 from a base of $1,570 in 1990. …Ukraine should be a wealthy country. It has world-class agricultural land, it is rich in hydrocarbons and mineral resources, and it possesses a well-educated labor force. Yet Ukraine remains poor, because while successful Central European nations have replaced their central-planning institutions with market-based reforms, Ukraine has never been able to break the crippling chains of collectivism.

Poland was in the same position as Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet empire, but it followed better policy and is now several times richer.

By employing free-market principles and unleashing the genius of its people, Poland has triggered an economic triumph as per capita GDP, in U.S. dollar equivalence, soared to more than $13,432 by 2013 from $1,683 in 1990. Today Poland is the fastest-growing economy in Europe. …The man largely responsible for Poland’s transformation is Leszek Balcerowicz, the former finance minister who was later governor of Poland’s Central Bank. …The Balcerowicz Plan was built around permitting state firms to go bankrupt, banning deficit financing, and maintaining a sound currency. It ended artificially low interest rate loans for state firms, opened up international trade and instituted currency convertibility. …A miracle transition was under way and the rest is history.

Since I’ve also compared Ukraine and Poland, you can understand why I especially liked this column.

One final point. Today’s post looks at just a couple of nations, but I’m not cherry picking. There are all sorts of comparisons that can be made, and the inevitable conclusion is that markets are better than statism.

Here are some previous iterations of this exercise.

I’ve compared South Korea and North Korea.

The data for Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela is very powerful.

I’ve shown how Singapore has eclipsed Jamaica.

Here’s a comparison of Sweden and Greece.

And we can see that Hong Kong has caught up with the United States.

So hopefully you can understand why I have a tiny (very tiny) degree of sympathy for my left-wing friends. It can’t be easy to hold views that are so inconsistent with global evidence.

P.S. When presented with this kind of evidence, leftists oftentimes will counter by saying that many nations in Europe are rich by global standards, while also having large governments. True, but it’s very important to understand that they became rich nations when they had small governments. Moreover, some of them have wisely compensated for large public sectors by maintaining ultra-free market policy in other areas.

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A few years ago, I shared a satirical divorce decree that would allow conservatives and liberals to amicably separate into two different countries.

This seemed like a good idea, particularly since another piece of satire suggested that Canada was being overrun by statists who were upset by the Tea Party election of 2010.

And don’t forget that I wrote a serious column in 2012 speculating whether advocates of limited government should be the ones moving north instead.

But rather than divorce or mass emigration, what if we could resolve our differences and live together in peace and tranquility?

Y’all may be thinking I’m smoking some of that stuff that libertarians want to legalize, but I want to make a serious point.

Or, to be more specific, I want to test whether our statist friends are serious.

I’m motivated by this presumably legitimate Facebook message. It’s designed, I’m guessing, to poke fun at conservatives who utilize government while simultaneously complaining about government.

Having read this diatribe, I want to make two points, and then end with a proposal.

My first point is that many of the supposed benefits of government would exist even if the public sector disappeared tomorrow.

There are some government-owned utilities, but I think we all recognize that most electricity is generated by the private sector.

Private satellite companies and private news companies would provide weather forecasts in the absence of NOAA and NASA.

Private food companies and private drug companies would have big incentives to provide safe products in the absence of government inspections.

People would know how to tell time without the government.

Auto companies would have every reason to produce safe cars even if there was no regulation.

I could continue, but you get the point.

Which brings me to my second point. The person who put together this screed conveniently left out the programs that account for the lion’s share of government spending.

Why doesn’t the author include agriculture programs?

Why doesn’t the author include the Ponzi Scheme otherwise known as Social Security?

Why doesn’t the author include all the money spent to subsidize other nations’ defenses?

Why doesn’t the author include bankrupt and counterproductive health care entitlements such as Obamacare, Medicare, and Medicaid?

Why doesn’t the author include the Department of Housing and Urban Development?

Why doesn’t the author include the corporate welfare at the Department of Commerce?

Why doesn’t the author include the welfare programs that trap people in dependency?

Why doesn’t the author include unemployment insurance payments that subsidize joblessness?

I could continue, but you get the point.

Which brings me to my proposal.

I’m guessing that the person who put together the diatribe wanted to make the point that there are some activities of government that produce value. And even though I think he is generally wrong to imply that these things wouldn’t happen without government, I’m willing to bend over backwards in the interests of reaching a deal.

So here’s a challenge for our friends on the left: If the author agrees to get rid of the programs he doesn’t include, I’ll agree to keep all the programs he does mention.

In other words, let’s have a compromise, which is what they recommend in all the articles about relationships. Both sides meet in the middle.

Yes, I know that means too much government, but it also means that the public sector would be a far smaller burden than it is today. Indeed, I would be surprised if the total burden of government spending exceeded 10 percent of our economic output under this proposed agreement. Which would put us somewhat close to the growth-maximizing size of government.

And don’t forget that this compromise also means that the already-legislated expansions in the burden of government spending presumably wouldn’t happen.

So my proposal doesn’t mean libertarian utopia. But it also means we don’t suffer welfare state dystopia.

Now we just have to see whether our statist friends will accept this proposed peace agreement.

Or will we find out that they’re the hypocrites, not the folks who post comments on Fox News and Free Republic?

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When major changes occur, especially if they’re bad, people generally will try to understand what happened so they can avoid similar bad events in the future.

This is why, when we’re looking at major economic events, it’s critical to realize that narratives matter.

For instance, generation after generation of American students were taught that the Great Depression was the fault of capitalism run amok. But we now have lots of evidence that bad government policy caused the Great Depression and that the downturn was made more severe and longer lasting thanks to further policy mistakes by Hoover and Roosevelt.

The history textbooks are probably still wrong, but at least there’s a chance that interested students (and non-students) will come across more accurate explanations of what happened in the 1930s.

More recently, the same thing happened after the financial crisis. The statists immediately tried to convince people that the 2008 mess was a consequence of “Wall Street greed” and “deregulation.”

Fortunately, many experts were available to point out that the real problem was bad government policy, specifically easy money from the Fed and the corrupt system of subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

So hopefully future history books won’t be as wrong about the financial crisis as they were about the Great Depression.

I raise these examples because I want to address another historical inaccuracy.

Let’s go back about 100 years ago to the s0-called “progressive era.” The conventional story is that this was a period when politicians reined in some of the excesses of big business. And if it wasn’t for that beneficial government intervention, we’d all still be oppressed peasants working in sweatshops.

There’s just one small problem with this narrative. It’s utter nonsense.

Let’s look specifically at the issue of sweatshops. Writing for the Independent Institute, Ben Powell looks at the history of sweatshops and whether workers were being mistreated.

He starts with a bit of history.

Sweatshops are an important stage in the process of economic development. As Jeffery Sachs puts it, “[S]weatshops are the first rung on the ladder out of  extreme poverty”. …Working conditions have been harsh and standards of living low throughout most of human history. …Prior to the Industrial Revolution,  textile production was decentralized to the homes of many rural families or artisans, and output was limited to what could be produced on the  spinning wheel and hand loom. …Yarn spinning was mechanized in 1767 with the invention of the spinning jenny, and water power was harnessed shortly  thereafter. With these inventions and steam power later, large-scale textile factories that are similar to today’s sweatshops emerged. The conditions in these  early sweatshops were worse than those in many Third World sweatshops today. In some factories, workers toiled for sixteen hours a day, six days per week.

Then he looks at what actually happened in Great Britain, which is where sweatshops began.

Yet workers flocked to the mills. …sweatshop workers…were attracted by the opportunity to earn higher wages than they could elsewhere. In fact, economist Ludwig von Mises defended the factory system of the Industrial Revolution,…writing, “The factory owners did not have the power to compel anybody to take a factory job. They could only hire people who were ready to work for the wages offered to them. Low as these wage rates were, they were nonetheless more than these paupers could earn in any other field open to them.” …Mises’s argument is supported by historical evidence. Economist Joel Mokyr reports that workers earned a wage premium of 15 to 30 percent by working in the factories compared with other alternatives. The transformation of Great Britain during this time was dramatic. As economist and historian Donald McCloskey describes it, “In the 80 years or so after 1780 the population of Britain nearly tripled, the towns of Liverpool and Manchester became gigantic cities, the average income of the population more than doubled… Peter Lindert and Jeffery  Williamson similarly find impressive gains in the standard of living between 1781 and 1851. Farm labor’s standard of living went up more than 60 percent,  blue-collar workers’ standard increased more than 86 percent, and overall workers’ standard increased more than 140 percent. Along with this increase in  the standard of living came a decrease in the share of women and children working beginning sometime between 1815 and 1820.

Ben then looks at the American experience. Once again, he finds that sweatshops allowed workers to earn more income than they could by staying on the farm.

And this was part of a process that enabled the United States to become much richer over time.

…workers flocked to the mills. At first, in the cities north of Boston it was mainly rural women and girls who left the farm to populate the early textile mills.  During the 1830s in Lowell, a woman could earn $12 to $14 a month (in 1830s dollars) and after paying $5 for room and board in a company boarding house  would have the rest left over for clothing, leisure, and savings. It wasn’t uncommon for women to return home to the farm after a year with $25 to $50 in a  bank account. This was far more money than they could have earned on the farm and often more disposable cash than their fathers had. …much like in Great Britain, living standards improved over time. In 1820, before the Industrial Revolution, annual per capita income in the United States stood at a little  more than $2,000. By 1850, it had grown by 50 percent to more than $3,000 and then doubled again by 1900 to more than $6,600. Along with the rise in  incomes came improvements in working conditions and greater consumption.

Eventually, of course, the sweatshops disappeared. But Ben explains that it was because of higher living standards rather than government intervention.

Sweatshops are eliminated mainly through the process of industrialization that raises a country’s income. The increased income comes from increased  worker productivity, which raises the upper bound of compensation. The increased productivity isn’t just in one firm, but in many firms and industries, and  thus workers’ next-best alternatives improve, raising the lower bound of compensation. As the economy grows, the competitive process pushes wages up.  Because health, safety, leisure, and so on are normal goods, workers demand more of their compensation on these margins as their total compensation increases. The result is the eventual disappearance of sweatshops.

Now let’s look at the broader issue of whether the “progressive era” was bad news for big business.

The answer is yes and no. Politicians imposed lots of legislation that was bad for the free market, but the crony capitalists of that era were big supporters of intervention.

Tim Carney elaborates in a column for the Washington Examiner.

Every American knows the fable of the Progressive Era and that “trust buster” Teddy Roosevelt wielding the big stick of federal power to battle the greedy corporations. We would be better off if more people knew the work of the man who dismantled this myth: historian Gabriel Kolko… His thesis: “The dominant fact of American political life” in the Progressive Period “was that big business led the struggle for the federal regulation of the economy.”

Here’s what really happened.

Many corporate titans in the early 20th Century, buying into the pervasive hubris of the day, believed that a state-managed economy was the inevitable end of a rational society—the conclusion of what Standard Oil’s top lobbyist Samuel Dodd called the “march of civilization.” Competition, in their eyes, was destructive redundancy. “Competition is industrial war,” James Logan of the U.S. Envelope Company wrote in 1901. “Ignorant, unrestricted competition carried to its logical conclusion means death to some of the combatants and injury for all.”  Steel baron Andrew Carnegie constantly strove to turn the steel industry into a cartel and keep prices high. Competition, however, always had a way pulling prices down. As Carnegie wrote in 1908, “It always comes back to me that Government control, and that alone, will properly solve the problem.” Kolko also showed how the socialists welcomed corporate-state collusion to advance monopoly as part of “progress.”

And, as Tim explains, it’s still happening today.

This has its echoes in contemporary progressive politics… When conservatives challenged Obamacare’s individual mandate, the White House had the backing of the insurance industry and the hospital lobby. After Obama won at the Supreme Court, liberal Bill Scher wrote in the New York Times that progressive victories historically flow from the Left’s alliances with Big Business. …Liberal scholar William Galston at the Brookings Institution explains the economics at play. “Corporations have sizeable cash flows and access to credit markets, which gives them a cushion against adversity and added costs,” he wrote in 2013, explaining why the big guys often welcome regulation.

In other words, big business often is the enemy of genuine capitalism and free markets.

Not only did the big companies, including insurance and pharmaceuticals, support Obamacare.

They’re now supporting the corrupt Import-Export Bank.

And they’re perfectly happy to support higher taxes, at least when the rest of us are being victimized.

They also supported the sleazy TARP bailout.

The moral of the story is not just the big business can be just as bad as big labor. The real moral of the story is captured by this poster.

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