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Archive for September, 2017

I’m currently in Iceland for a conference organized by the European Students for Liberty. I spoke earlier today on the case for lower taxes and I made six basic points.

Sadly, not everyone agrees with my views, either in Iceland or the United States.

Regarding the latter, Robert Samuelson expressed a contrary position last month when writing about the tax debate in the Washington Post.

…we need higher, not lower, taxes. …We are undertaxed. Government spending, led by the cost of retirees, regularly exceeds our tax intake.

After reading his column, I thought about putting together a detailed response. I was especially tempted to debunk the carbon tax, which is his preferred way of generating additional tax revenue.

But then it occurred to me that could make an “appeal to authority.” In my Iceland presentation today, I cited very wise words from four former presidents on tax policy. And their statements are all that we need to dismiss Samuelson’s column.

We’ll start with Thomas Jefferson, who argues for small government and against income taxation.

We then take a trip through history so we can see what Grover Cleveland said about the topic.

Simply stated, he viewed any taxes – above what was needed to finance a minimal state – as “ruthless extortion.”

The great Calvin Coolidge said the same thing about four decades later.

Last but not least, the Gipper addresses Samuelson’s point about the difference between taxes and spending.

Reagan is right, of course. The burden of federal spending is the problem whether looking at pre-World War II data or post-World War II data.

Four good points of view from four good Presidents.

The only missing component is that I need to find a President who correctly explains that higher taxes will lead to higher spending and more red ink.

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A new annual edition of Economic Freedom of the World has been released.

The first thing that everyone wants to know is how various nations are ranked.

Let’s start at the bottom. I can’t imagine that anybody will be surprised to learn that Venezuela is in last place, though we don’t know for sure the worse place in the world since the socialist hellholes of Cuba and North Korea weren’t included because of a lack of acceptable data.

At the other end, Hong Kong is in first place, where it’s been ranked for decades, followed by Singapore, which also have been highly ranked for a long time. Interestingly, the gap between those two jurisdictions is shrinking, so it will be interesting to see if Singapore grabs the top spot next year.

New Zealand and Switzerland are #3 and #4, respectively, retaining their lofty rankings from last year.

The biggest news is that Canada plunged. It was #5 last year, but now is tied for #11. And I can’t help but worry what will happen in the future given the leftist orientation of the nation’s current Prime Minister.

Another notable development is that the United Kingdom jumped four spots, from #10 to #6. If that type of movement continues, the U.K. definitely will prosper in a post-Brexit world.

And if we venture outside the top 10, I can’t help but feel happy that the United States rose from #16 to #11. And America’s ranking didn’t jump merely because other nation’s adopted bad policy. The U.S. score increased from 7.75 in last year’s report to 7.94 in this year’s release.

A few other things that grabbed my attention are the relatively high scores for all the Baltic nations, the top-20 rankings for Denmark and Finland, and Chile‘s good (but declining) score.

Let’s take a look at four fascinating charts from the report.

We’ll start with a closer look at the United States. As you can see from this chart, the United States enjoyed a gradual increase in economic freedom during the 1980s and 1990s, followed by a gradual decline during most of the Bush-Obama years. But in the past couple of years (hopefully the beginning of a trend), the U.S. score has improved.

Now let’s shift to the post-communist world.

What’s remarkable about nations from the post-Soviet Bloc is that you have some big success stories and some big failures.

I already mentioned that the Baltic nations get good scores, but Georgia and Romania deserve attention as well.

But other nations – most notably Ukraine and Russia – remain economically oppressed.

Our next chart shows long-run developments in the scores of developed and developing nations.

Both sets of countries benefited from economic liberalization in the 19890s and 1990s. But the 21st century has – on average – been a period of policy stagnation.

Last but not least, let’s look at the nations that have enjoyed the biggest increases and suffered the biggest drops since 2000.

A bunch of post-communist nations are in the group that enjoyed the biggest increases in economic liberty. It’s also good to see that Rwanda’s score has jumped so much.

I’m unhappy, by contrast, so see the United States on the list of nations that experienced the largest reductions in economic liberty since the turn of the century.

Greece’s big fall, however, is not surprising. And neither are the astounding declines for Argentina and Venezuela (Argentina improved quite a bit in this year’s edition, so hopefully that’s a sign that the country is beginning to recover from the horrid statism of the Kirchner era).

Let’s close with a reminder that Economic Freedom of the World uses dozens of variables to create scores in five major categories (fiscal, regulatory, trade, monetary, and rule of law). These five scores are then combined to produce a score for each country, just as grades in five classes might get combined to produce a student’s grade point average.

This has important implications because getting a really good score in one category won’t produce strong economic results if there are bad scores in the other four categories. Likewise, a bad score in one category isn’t a death knell if a nation does really well in the other four categories.

As a fiscal policy wonk, I always try to remind myself not to have tunnel vision. There are nations that may get good scores on fiscal policy, but get a bad overall score because of poor performance in non-fiscal variables (Lebanon, for instance). Similarly, there are nations that get rotten scores on fiscal policy, yet are ranked highly because they are very market-oriented in the other four variables (Denmark and Finland, for example).

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Not everybody appreciates my defense of tax havens.

I don’t mind these threats and attacks. I figure the other side would ignore me if I wasn’t being at least somewhat effective in the battle to preserve tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy.

That being said, it’s definitely nice to have allies. I’ve cited Nobel laureates who support jurisdictional competition, and also shared great analysis in support of low-tax jurisdictions from top-flight financial writers such as Allister Heath and Pierre Bessard.

Now we have a new video from Sweden’s Johan Norberg. Johan’s latest contribution in his Dead Wrong series is a look at tax havens.

Johan packs an incredible amount of information in an 88-second video.

  1. He points out that stolen data from low-tax jurisdictions mostly reveals that politicians are the ones engaging in misbehavior, a point I’ve made when writing about pilfered data from Panama and the British Virgin Islands.
  2. He makes the critical point that tax competition “restrains the greed of government,” a point that the New York Times inadvertently confirmed.
  3. He also makes the key point that tax havens actually are good for the economies of high-tax nations because they serve as platforms for investment and job creation that otherwise might not occur.
  4. Moreover, he notes that the best way to boost tax compliance is by having honest government and low tax rates.

The bottom line is that tax competition and tax havens promote better policy since they discourage politicians from imposing high tax rates and double taxation.

But this isn’t merely an economic and tax issue. There’s also a very strong moral argument for tax havens since those jurisdictions historically have respected the human right of financial privacy.

For those who care about global prosperity, the real target should be tax hells rather than tax havens.

This is a message I will continue to deliver, whether to skeptics in the media or up on Capitol Hill.

P.S. If you prefer an eight-minute video over an 88-second video, here’s my two cents on the importance of tax competition.

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Since I’m in London for a couple of speeches, I’ve taken advantage of this opportunity to make sure I’m up to speed on Brexit.

Regular readers may recall that I supported the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union. Simply stated, the European Union is a slowly sinking ship. Getting in a lifeboat doesn’t guarantee a good outcome, I noted, but at least there’s hope.

The European Union’s governmental manifestations…are – on net – a force for statism rather than liberalization. Combined with Europe’s grim demographic outlook, a decision to remain would guarantee a slow, gradual decline. A vote to leave, by contrast, would create uncertainty and anxiety in some quarters, but the United Kingdom would then have the ability to make decisions that will produce a more prosperous future. Leaving the EU would be like refinancing a mortgage when interest rates decline. In the first year or two, it might be more expensive because of one-time expenses. In the long run, though, it’s a wise decision.

Others reached the same conclusion.

“Black Swan” author Nassim Nicholas Taleb…told CNBC’s “Power Lunch” the EU has become a “metastatic and rather incompetent bureaucracy” that is too intrusive. “The way they’ve been building it top down from Brussels is doomed to fail. This is 2016. They are still thinking 1950 economics,” said Taleb, who is also the author of “Antifragile” and is an advisor to Universa Investments. Taleb has warned about an EU breakup for some time, calling it a horrible, stupid project back in 2012.

That being said, there is a lot of angst in the U.K. about what will happen during the divorce process, in part because of the less-than-stellar performance of the Tory leadership.

There are three things, however, that British politicians need to remember.

First, the EU bureaucrats are terrified at the prospect of losing $10 billion of annual payments from the U.K., which is why they are desperately trying to convince politicians in London to cough up a big pile of money as part of a “divorce” settlement.

And “desperately” is probably an understatement.

The UK…contributions to the EU do come to over €10 billion a year. That is a substantial fiscal hole for the European Commission to plug… The Commission would prefer not to reduce expenditure since the structural funds and agricultural subsidies it distributes help to justify the EU’s existence. …it is not surprising that the Brexit divorce bill has become a sticking point in the negotiations. If the amount is big enough, it could tide the EU over for a few years. In Brussels, a problem kicked down the road is treated as a problem solved. This gives the British some leverage because it is most unlikely that the Commission will have lined up any new sources of funding, or agreed what it can cut, before March 29, 2019, when negotiations have to be completed. With no deal, the EU might end up with nothing at all.

Second, European politicians are terrified that the U.K., which already has the world’s 10th-freest economy, will slash tax rates and become even more competitive in a post-Brexit world.

If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe European officials who say the same thing.

European leaders will insist that the UK rules out tax dumping as part of any trade deal struck during Brexit negotiations… Matthias Machnig, the German deputy economy minister, called for a “reasonable framework” in tax and regulation, and warning “a race to the bottom in tax and regulation matters would make trade relations difficult”. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, also warned this morning that a deal must “…encompass safeguards against unfair competitive advantages through, inter alia, fiscal, social and environmental dumping”. The fear is that unless the trade deal which binds the UK into the European standards on tax, competition and state aid the UK will lead a regulatory “race to the bottom”.

Third, failure to reach a deal (also know as a “hard Brexit”) isn’t the end of the world. It’s not even a bad outcome. A hard Brexit simply means that the U.K. trades with Europe under the default rules of the World Trade Organization. That’s not complete, unfettered free trade, but it means only modest trade barriers. And since Britain trades quite successfully with the rest of the world under those rules, there’s no reason to fear a collapse of trade with Europe.

Moreover, don’t forget that many industries in Europe will pressure their politicians to continue free trade because they benefit from sales to U.K. consumers.

Around one in seven German cars is exported to the UK. Around 950,000 newly registered vehicles in the UK last year were made in Germany. As many as 60,000 automotive jobs in Germany are dependent on exports to the UK. Deloitte have explored the potential effect of a “tariff war” on the industry. …German politicians are realising this. The Bavarian Minister for Economic Affairs, Ilse Aigner, has said that “Great Britain is one of the most important trading partners in Bavaria. We must do everything we can to eliminate the uncertainties that have arisen.” …The Minister is correct. …A comprehensive free trade agreement is not only vital, but should be easy to achieve. In other words, spiteful protectionism from the Commission would accomplish nothing but impoverishing all sides.

The bottom line is that the U.K. has plenty of negotiating power to get a good outcome.

So what does this mean? How should British politicians handle negotiations, considering that they would like free trade with Europe?

Part of the answer is diplomatic skill. British officials should quietly inform their counterparts that they understand a hard Brexit isn’t a bad outcome. And they should gently remind EU officials that a hard Brexit almost certainly guarantees a more aggressive agenda of tax cuts and deregulation.

But remember that it’s in the interest of U.K. policymakers to adopt good policy regardless of what deal (if any) is made with the European bureaucrats.

The first thing that should happen is for British politicians to adopt a low-tax model based on Singapore. Some experts in the U.K. are explicitly advocating this approach.

I call this the Singapore effect. When Singapore separated from the Malaysian Federation in 1965, it apparently faced a grim future. But the realisation that no one was going to do it any favours acted as a spur to effective government – with spectacular results. We could do the same. We need a strategy that lays out the path to reductions in corporation tax, lower personal tax.

Marian Tupy of the Cato Institute explains why copying Singapore would be a very good idea.

Why Singapore? Let’s look at a couple of statistics. In 1950, GDP per capita adjusted for inflation and purchasing power parity was $5,689.91 in Singapore. It was $11,920.58 in the U.K. Average income in Singapore, in other words, amounted to 48 percent of that in the U.K. In 2016, income in Singapore was $82,168.33 and $42,287.17 in the U.K. Put differently, Singaporeans earned 94 percent more than the British. During the intervening years, Singaporean incomes rose by 1,344 percent, while British incomes rose by 256 percent. …the “threat” of Singaporean tax rates and regulatory framework ought not to be a mere negotiating strategy for the British government vis-a-vis the EU. It ought to be a goal of the British decision makers—regardless of what the EU decides!

Here’s a chart from Marian’s article.

Or the U.K. could copy Hong Kong, as a Telegraph columnist suggests.

Our political leaders still seem to lack a vision of what Britain can achieve outside the EU… Perhaps they are lacking in inspiration. If so, …Hong Kong…is now one of the richest places in the world, with income per capita 40 per cent higher than Britain’s.

And much of the credit belongs to John Cowperthwaite, who unleashed great prosperity in Hong Kong by limiting the role of government.

Faced with…the approach being taken in much of the West: deficit financing, industrial planning, state ownership of industry, universal welfare and higher taxation. How much of this did the British civil servant think worth transposing to Hong Kong? Virtually nothing. He had a simple alternative: government spending depended on government revenues, and this in turn was determined by the strength of the economy. Therefore, the vital task for government was to facilitate growth. …He believed in the freest possible flow of goods and capital. He kept taxes low in order that savings could be reinvested in businesses to boost growth. …Cowperthwaite’s view was that higher government spending today destroys the growth of tomorrow. Indeed, over the last 70 years Hong Kong has limited the size of the state to below 20 per cent of GDP (in Britain it is over 40 per cent) and growth has been substantially faster than in the UK. He made a moral case for limiting the size of government, too.

In other words, the United Kingdom should seek comprehensive reforms to reduce the burden of government.

That includes obvious choices like lower tax rates and less red tape. And it also means taking advantage of Brexit to implement other pro-market reforms.

One example is that the U.K. will now be able to assert control over territorial waters. That should be immediately followed by the enactment of a property rights-based system for fisheries. It appears that Scottish fishermen already are agitating for this outcome.

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation says the UK’s exit from the European Union will boost jobs in the sector, reports The Guardian. It’s chief executive Bertie Armstrong said the exit will give them “the ability to recover proper, sustainable, rational stewardship through our own exclusive economic zone for fisheries”.

Let’s close with some Brexit-related humor.

I already shared some examples last year, and we can augment that collection with this video. It’s more about USexit, but there’s some Brexit material as well.

And here’s some more satire, albeit unintentional.

The President of the European Commission is so irked by Trump’s support for Brexit that he is threatening to campaign for secession in the United States.

In an extraordinary speech the EU Commission president said he would push for Ohio and Texas to split from the rest of America if the Republican president does not change his tune and become more supportive of the EU. …A spokesman for the bloc later said that the remarks were not meant to be taken literally, but also tellingly did not try to pass them off as humorous and insisted the EU chief was making a serious comparison.

I have no idea why Juncker picked Ohio and Texas, but I can state with full certainty that zero people in either state will care with a European bureaucrat thinks.

And speaking of accidental satire, this tweet captures the mindset of the critics who wanted to pretend that nativism was the only reason people were supporting Brexit.

Last but not least, we have another example of unintentional humor. The pro-tax bureaucrats at the OECD are trying to convince U.K. lawmakers that tax cuts are a bad idea.

The head of tax at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which advises developed nations on policy, said the UK could use its freedom from EU rules to slash corporate tax but the political price would be high. …”A further step in that direction would really turn the UK into a tax haven type of economy,” he said, adding that there were practical and domestic political barriers to doing this. …The UK is already in the process of cutting its corporate tax rate to 17 percent.

Though maybe I shouldn’t list this as unintentional humor. Maybe some British politicians will be deterred simply because some tax-free bureaucrats in Paris expressed disapproval. If so, the joke will be on British workers who get lower wages as a result of foregone investment.

By the way, here’s a reminder, by Diana Furchtgott-Roth in the Washington Examiner, of why Brexit was the right choice.

As we celebrate Independence Day on July 4, we can send a cheer across the pond to the British, who declared independence from the European Union on June 23. For the British, that means no more tax and regulatory harmonization without representation. Laws passed by Parliament will no longer have to be EU-compatible. It even means they will be able to keep their high-efficiency kettles, toasters, hair dryers and vacuum cleaners. As just one example of the absurdity of EU regulation, vacuum cleaners with over 1600 watts were banned by Brussels in 2014, and those over 900 watts are scheduled to be phased out in 2017. Brussels bureaucrats say that these vacuum cleaners use too much energy. No matter that the additional energy cost of a 2300-watt vacuum cleaner compared with a 1600-watt model is less than $20 a year, that it takes more time to vacuum with a low-energy model, and, most important, people should be able to choose for themselves how they want to spend their time and money. I, for one, prefer less time housecleaning.

Amen. As much as I despise the busybodies in Washington for subjecting me to inferior light bulbs, substandard toiletssecond-rate dishwashersweak-flow showerheads, and inadequate washing machines, I would be far more upset if those nanny-state policies were being imposed by some unaccountable international bureaucracy.

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Perhaps because there’s no hope for genuine Obamacare repeal and limited hope for sweeping tax reform, I’m having to look outside of Washington for good news.

I wrote the other day about the very successful tax reforms in North Carolina. So now let’s travel to the Midwest.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page has a very upbeat assessment of Michigan’s turnaround, though it starts by noting that many states teach us lessons on what shouldn’t happen.

…states can provide instructive policy lessons for better and sometimes worse—see the fiscal crack-ups in Connecticut and Illinois.

I definitely agree about the fiscal disasters of Connecticut and Illinois. And Michigan used to be in that group.

Former Michigan Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm was a progressive specialist in using the tax code to politically allocate capital, which depressed and distorted business investment. Between 2002 and 2007, Michigan was the only state to experience zero economic growth. …misguided policies were arguably bigger contributors to Michigan’s slump. Between 2002 and 2007, Michigan’s manufacturing grew at a third of the rate of the Great Lakes region. …In 2007 Democrats increased the state income tax to 4.35% from 3.9%. They also enacted a new business tax with a 4.95% tax on income, a 0.8% gross-receipts tax, plus a 21.99% surcharge on business tax liability. …Michigan’s economy plunged amid the national recession with unemployment hitting 14.9% in June 2009.

But Michigan has experienced a remarkable turnaround in recent years.

Michigan…offers a case study in the pro-growth potential of business tax reform. …Mr. Snyder’s first major undertaking with his Republican legislature was to replace the cumbersome state business tax with a 6% corporate tax and trim the individual rate to 4.25%. Michigan’s corporate-tax ranking jumped to seventh from 49th in the Tax Foundation’s business tax climate rankings. …They also reformed state-worker pensions. After the 2012 midterm elections, Republicans passed right-to-work legislation that lets workers choose whether to join unions. In 2014 state voters approved a ballot measure backed by the governor to repeal the personal-property tax for small businesses and manufacturers.

These reforms already are paying dividends.

In 2011 Michigan added jobs for the first time in six years, and it has since led the Great Lakes region in manufacturing growth. Unemployment has fallen below the national average to 3.9% even as the labor-force participation rate has ticked up. …Unemployment in the Detroit metro area has fallen to 3.2% from 11.4% six years ago. Businesses in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids say they can’t find enough workers. Perhaps they should try recruiting in Chicago or New Haven.

As a fiscal wonk, I’m delighted by tax cuts and tax reform. That being said, I want to specifically focus on the reform of bureaucrat pensions in the Wolverine State.

It was mentioned as an aside in the WSJ editorial, but it may be even more important than tax changes in the long run. We’ll start with a short video the Mackinac Center produced to helped stimulate debate.

Here’s some of what Investor’s Business Daily wrote about the recent reforms.

We’ll start with a description of the problem that existed.

For years, Michigan had been racking up pension liabilities for public school teachers that it had no money to pay for. By 2016, the state’s unfunded liability had reached $29 billion — which meant state was funding only 60% of its pension obligations. …Michigan is hardly the only state to have made this mistake. Pressured by public sector unions, state lawmakers boosted retirement benefits, using wildly unrealistic forecasts for investment returns and wage growth to justify them.

And here are the admirable reforms that were enacted.

So what did Michigan do to avoid Illinois’ fate? It embraced bold pension reforms that will protect taxpayers and provide a solid retirement benefit to teachers. …it’s shifting its public school teachers toward defined contribution plans. All new hires will be automatically enrolled in a 401(k)-type plan with a default 10% contribution rate. Teachers will still be able to opt for a traditional defined benefit pension, but one that splits costs 50-50 between workers and the state, and includes safeguards that will prevent the funding ratio from dropping below 85%.

The experts at Reason also weighed in on the topic.

Pension analysts from the Reason Foundation (which publishes this blog and advocated for passage of SB 401) say no other state in the country has embraced reforms that go as far as Michigan’s. …new hires will be enrolled in a 401(k)-style pension plan, giving those workers the chance to control their own retirement planning while removing the threat of future unfunded liabilities. …What makes the Michigan proposal unique is it allows future hires to choose a so-called “hybrid” pension system retaining some elements of the old system with a provision requiring pension system to be shuttered if the gap between the fund’s liabilities and assets falls below 85 percent for two consecutive years. The mixed approach, allowing teachers to choose between a traditional pension and a 401(k)-style retirement plan, could be a model for other states to follow as they grapple with similar pension troubles.

Though the bill isn’t a panacea.

Paying down those obligations will take time—all current teachers and public school employees will remain enrolled in the current pension system and retirees will continue to collect benefits from it—but [it]…would make a big difference in the state’s long-term fiscal outlook.

Here’s a chart from the Mackinac Center showing how pensions became a growing problem. Unwinding this mess understandably won’t happen overnight.

But at least Michigan lawmakers took a real step in the right direction.

The same principle applies in Washington. Reforms to Medicare and Social Security wouldn’t change payments to existing retirees. And older workers generally would stick with the status quo.

But proposed entitlement reforms would lead to substantial long-run savings as younger workers are given the freedom to participate in new systems.

 

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In my research and travels, I come across all sorts of strange stories about tax policy.

While I’m quite amused by these oddball examples, I actually prefer writing about overseas tax policies that provide teachable moments about big issues such as the Laffer Curve, taxes and growth, tax competition, and how higher tax burdens “feed the beast” by enabling more government spending.

Let’s look at some new examples and see what we can learn about politicians and fiscal policy.

We’ll start with a Bloomberg story from the Ukraine, where taxpayers go above and beyond to escape extortionary taxes on foreign vehicles.

Take a close look at the cars crawling through Kiev’s traffic-laden streets and you’ll notice something odd: a surprisingly large number of them aren’t registered in Ukraine. The explanation isn’t a sudden inflow of tourists, but rather a work-around by local drivers who crave foreign-made vehicles and refuse to pay restrictively high import duties to buy them. Instead, schemes have popped up where buyers effectively acquire cars from nearby nations and bring them across the border on temporary arrangements. They must then leave and re-enter Ukraine every year, or sometimes more frequently. “It’s amazing,” said Oleksandr Zadnipryaniy, a 30-year old entrepreneur who paid about $3,000 for a second-hand Opel Vectra from Lithuania. “Taxes are exorbitant. Why must poorer Ukrainians pay three times as much as richer Europeans?”

The answer to Mr. Zadnipryaniy’s question is that they don’t pay the tax. At least not if this chart is any indication.

Needless to say, I’m on the side of taxpayers and don’t have sympathy for the politicians, who are motivated by a desire to extract revenue and curry favor with domestic interest groups.

Such cars represent a headache for the government. Dodging import duties trims budget revenue… Cracking down is also tricky. …Drivers blame the government, accusing it of pandering to local car lobbies by setting high import duties.

Now let’s shift to another story about tax avoidance, though this one doesn’t have a happy ending.

The BBC reports that a big tax hike may put an end to “booze cruises” from Finland to Estonia

The Estonian government is set to impose a 70% rise in taxation on alcoholic drinks in July, Finnish broadcaster YLE reports. It’s a blow to drinkers from Finland who, since Estonian independence in 1991, have taken the short 54-mile (87km) ferry trip from Helsinki to Tallinn to enjoy prices which are less than half of those back home. …a 12-euro crate of beer will increase to 18 euros, making the concept of the money-saving “booze cruise” much less inviting.

But fortunately Finns still have an option.

Finnish tourist Erno Sjogren said that the tax rise might make him think again – but not on giving up the concept. Speaking to Helsingin Sanomat as he loaded his car outside an Estonian supermarket, he said he would consider taking his trade to Latvia instead – a 2.5-hour drive cross-country from the ferry port in the Estonian capital. The Latvian town of Ainazi is already benefitting, Helsingen Sanomat says, with the appropriately named SuperAlko store visible from the Estonian border and offering cheaper prices than its Baltic neighbours.

Let’s toast to tax competition!

Last but not least, I’m a giant fan of decentralization and a partial fan of secession (done properly and for good reasons), but you don’t automatically get results.

Consider what’s happening in Scotland, as reported by the U.K.-based Times.

Nicola Sturgeon has given her clearest indication to date that Scots will be in line for substantial income tax rises next year. In an interview due to be published today the first minister dismissed suggestions that a high-tax agenda would deter businesses, arguing instead that paying for good public services could be just as attractive to investors and people as low taxes. Ms Sturgeon’s comments came as the Scottish parliament backed a motion calling for higher taxes to pay for public services.

Ugh. I’m sympathetic to Scottish independence, but stories like this make me pessimistic about what will happen if politicians like Sturgeon are in charge of an independent nation.

Assuming, of course, she’s actually ignorant enough to believe that investors want higher taxes.

And I haven’t written about whether Catalonia should be independent of Spain, but this blurb from the EU Observer leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Catalonia’s regional government said Monday that increases in staff at the tax office, from 321 to 800, have made the Spanish region ready to collect taxes for an independent Catalonia if citizens vote for independence on 1 October. A law to organise the referendum will be to a vote on Wednesday, but the national government in Madrid has dismissed the bill as a way to “cheat democracy”.

Technically, this won’t be bad news if the 479 new tax bureaucrats replace a similar number (or larger number) of officials that formerly harassed people on behalf of the national government in Madrid.

But I’m automatically suspicious that politicians and bureaucrats will maneuver to be the winners of any change. This isn’t an argument against secession, but it is a warning that independence won’t yield economic benefits if there’s no reduction in the burden of government.

Advocates of an independent Catalonia should first and foremost be making plans to unleash the private sector, to make themselves the Hong Kong or Singapore of Europe.

Assuming, of course, that they would want their new country to be highly ranked by Economic Freedom of the World.

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Whenever someone accuses me of being too dogmatically opposed to government, I tell them that I only got 94 out of 160 possible points when I took Professor Bryan Caplan’s Libertarian Purity Quiz.

That’s barely 70 percent, which makes it seem like I’m some sort of squishy moderate even though I have a nice list of government departments and agencies I want to abolish.

And whenever someone accuses me of being insufficiently opposed to government, I point out that my score on Professor Caplan’s quiz is good enough – albeit just barely – for me to be categorized as a hard-core libertarian.

So does this mean I’m a principled moderate, if such a creature even exists?

Actually, it simply means that I’m not an “anarcho-capitalist,” which is the term for people who think all government can be abolished (sort of like the “more libertarian than thou” character in this amusing list of the 24 types of libertarians). If you want to get a perfect score on the Libertarian Purity Quiz, you have to favor abolishing the Department of Defense, the court system, and every other vestige of government.

That being said, I like that there are people pushing the envelope for more liberty. And I tell my anarcho-capitalist friends that we should all work together to get rid of 90 percent of government and then we can quibble over the rest.

Moreover, when I spoke earlier this year at the conference celebrating the 2nd-anniversary of Liberland, I pointed out that there are plenty of examples of how the private sector successfully carries out functions that most people think can only be handled by government.

Which leads me to the focus of today’s column. The U.K.-based Guardian has a fascinating story about a very successful Nigerian church.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God’s international headquarters in Ogun state has been transformed from a mere megachurch to an entire neighbourhood, with departments anticipating its members’ every practical as well as spiritual need. A 25-megawatt power plant with gas piped in from the Nigerian capital serves the 5,000 private homes on site, 500 of them built by the church’s construction company. New housing estates are springing up every few months where thick palm forests grew just a few years ago.

To most people, this story is probably interesting because of what it says about Nigeria and religion.

But since I’m a wonky libertarian, what grabbed my attention was the fact that the church – for all intents and purposes – was building an anarcho-capitalist society.

Education is provided, from creche to university level. The Redemption Camp health centre has an emergency unit and a maternity ward. …“If you wait for the government, it won’t get done,” says Olubiyi. So the camp relies on the government for very little – it builds its own roads, collects its own rubbish, and organises its own sewerage systems. And being well out of Lagos, like the other megachurches’ camps, means that it has little to do with municipal authorities. …according to the head of the power plant, the government sends the technicians running its own stations to learn from them. …the camp’s security is mostly provided by its small army of private guards in blue uniforms.

To be sure, it’s not a purely anarcho-capitalist society. The Nigerian government still has ultimate power to enforce laws.

But from a practical, day-to-day perspective, the church has set up a private city governed by private contract and voluntary cooperation. Sort of a Nigerian version of Galt’s Gulch.

And it’s definitely worth pointing out that it is far more successful than traditional Nigerian cities (and it sounds like it works better than many American cities!).

P.S. Anarcho-capitalism is susceptible to satire, as you can see from this clever video about Somalia and this ad for libertarian breakfast cereal.

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