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Archive for the ‘Free Markets’ Category

Several months ago, I put forth a two-question challenge for our left-wing friends.

Since they relentlessly insist that we can have bigger government, higher taxes, more regulation, and added intervention without any negative impact on economic performance, I asked them to identify a single country that became rich following their policies.

And because I’m such a nice guy, I even gave them an extra option. If they couldn’t find a nation that become prosperous with statist policies, they also could successfully respond to my challenge by picking out a big-government jurisdiction that is out-performing a similar country with free markets and small government.

So what’s been the response? Zip. Nada. Zilch. Nothing.

Not that we should be surprised. After all, the rich nations of the western world all became prosperous back in the 1800s and early 1900s when the burden of government was tiny, smaller even than the public sector in Hong Kong today.

And what about the second part of the challenge? Well, our leftist friends have no answers to that query either.

But our side has lots of counter-examples. I’ve put together several comparisons of relatively pro-market jurisdictions and relatively statist jurisdictions. And when making these comparisons, I’ve used several decades of data to avoid the risk of misleading results caused by cherry-picking favorable or unfavorable years.

* Chile vs. Argentina vs. Venezuela

* Hong Kong vs. Cuba

* North Korea vs. South Korea

* Cuba vs. Chile

* Ukraine vs. Poland

* Hong Kong vs. Argentina

* Singapore vs. Jamaica

* United States vs. Hong Kong and Singapore

In every single case, the places with smaller government and free markets generate much stronger economic performance. And that translates into higher living standards.

Now we’re going to add to our list of comparisons, and we’re going to travel to Africa.

Botswana is one of the most pro-market nations in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s still a long way from being Hong Kong, but you can see from the Economic Freedom of the World data that it’s been a steady performer, averaging more than 7 out of 10 this century.

Indeed, only Rwanda ranks higher for economic freedom in the region, but that’s the result of pro-growth reforms in the past few years, so we’ll have to wait a while (assuming the reforms are durable) before having useful data.

And speaking of comparisons, let’s now look at what’s happened to per-capita GDP in Botswana as well as the data for the countries in the region that get the worst scores from Economic Freedom of the World.

As you can see, Botswana (the thick blue line) used to be among the very poorest nations in the region, but over time its per-capita economic output has easily surpassed the countries that have followed statist policies.

These numbers are adjusted for inflation, so the key takeaway is that per-capita economic output is now almost 10 times higher in Botswana than it was in the mid-1960s.

Most of the other nations, by contrast, have suffered from declining real incomes. In other words, the price of statism is very high, particularly for the less fortunate in society.

But there is a sliver of good news (in addition to the Botswana data). If you look carefully, you’ll see that the overall numbers for Africa (thin blue line) have noticeably improved since the late 1990s. Which underscores the importance of promoting business investment in the region, as explained recently by Marian Tupy.

For more information on Botswana, here’s a video put together by Ed Frank (who’s also a very good softball player).

P.S. I rarely comment on foreign policy, but I confess that my jaw dropped when I saw that an Obama Administration official said that a jobs program was key to defeating ISIS.

I thought about recycling some of the evidence showing that government efforts to create jobs are a miserable failure, but then I saw two cartoons that are too funny not to share.

Our first contribution is from Glenn McCoy.

And here’s a gem from Michael Ramirez.

You can see why Ramirez won the political cartoonist contest.

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Last year, I shared some libertarian humor relating to Valentine’s Day.

This year, we’re going to be a bit more on the wonky side.

Using roses as an example, we’re going to explore how the invisible hand of the market produces amazing results.

Here’s a great new video from Marginal Revolution University. Narrated by Professor Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University’s economics department, it explains how consumers have amazing access to millions of roses even though (actually because) there’s no agency or department in charge of Valentine’s Day.

And here’s a related video from MRU elaborating on the role of the price system.

The moral of the story in these videos is that a free and unfettered market is far and away the best method of allocating resources.

And the flip side of that lesson is that you get very bad results when politicians replace the invisible hand of the market with the visible foot of government.

Here’s some of what I wrote, for instance, when discussing proposals to give politicians power over wage levels.

…what’s really at stake is whether we want resources to be allocated by market forces instead of political edicts. This should be a no-brainer. If we look at the failure of central planning in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, a fundamental problem was that government officials – even assuming intelligence and good intentions – did not have the knowledge needed to make decisions on prices. And in the absence of a functioning price system, resources get misallocated and growth suffers. So you can imagine the potential damage of giving politicians, bureaucrats, and courts the ability to act as central planners for the wage system.

And here are some excerpts from a post about the damaging impact of subsidies to higher education.

Interfering with the price system is an especially pernicious form of intervention. When functioning properly, prices enable the wants and needs of consumers to be properly channeled to producers and suppliers in a way that promotes prosperity and efficiency. Unfortunately, governments hinder this system with all sorts of misguided policies such as subsidies and price controls. One of the worst manifestations of this type of intervention is the system of third-party payer, which occurs when government policies artificially reduce the perceived prices of goods and services.

And I could cite lots of other examples on issues such as the minimum wage, health care, housing, and agriculture.

Simply stated, you get all sorts of perverse results when politicians interfere with prices.

And that means lower living standards over time as the economy operates less efficiently.

Especially if a government really goes overboard and tries to regulate and control the entire economy rather than “just” interfere with a few sectors. Let’s look at the case of Venezuela. I’ve already written about how first Chavez and now Maduro have turned that nation into an economic hellhole.

It’s so bad that even the establishment media are taking notice.

Here are some passages from Matt O’Brien’s Wonkblog column in the Washington Post.

Venezuela…has the largest oil reserves in the world. It should be rich. But it isn’t, and it’s getting even poorer now, because of economic mismanagement on a world-historical scale. The problem is simple: Venezuela’s government thinks it can have an economy by just pretending it does. That it can print as much money as it wants without stoking inflation by just saying it won’t. And that it can end shortages just by kicking people out of line. It’s a triumph of magical thinking that’s not much of one when it turns grocery-shopping into a days-long ordeal that may or may not actually turn up things like food or toilet paper.

The government is trying to paper over its incompetence by printing money.

…the Bolivarian regime is to blame. The trouble is that while it has tried to help the poor, which is commendable, it has also spent much more than it can afford, which is not. Indeed, Venezuela’s government is running a 14 percent of gross domestic product deficit right now, a fiscal hole so big that there’s only one way to fill it: the printing press. But…paying people with newly printed money only makes that money lose value, and prices go parabolic. It’s no wonder then that Venezuela’s inflation rate is officially 64 percent, is really something like 179 percent, and could get up to 1,000 percent, according to Bank of America, if Venezuela doesn’t change its byzantine currency controls. Venezuela’s government, in other words, is playing whac-a-mole with economic reality.

And there’s also a pervasive system of price controls.

Venezuela’s government wants to wish away the inflation it’s created, so it tells stores what prices they’re allowed to sell at. These bureaucrat-approved prices, however, are too low to be profitable, which is why the government has to give companies subsidies to make them worthwhile. Now when these price controls work, the result is shortages, and when they don’t, it’s even worse ones. …it’s not profitable for the unsubsidized companies to stock their shelves, and not profitable enough for the subsidized ones to do so, either.

In the ultimate triumph of big government, Venezuela is even imposing controls on rationing!

…shortages, which had already hit 30 percent of all goods before the central bank stopped keeping track last year, have gone from being a fact of life to the fact of life. …People have lined up for days to try to buy whatever they can, which isn’t much, from grocery stores that are even more empty than usual. The government has been forced to send the military in to these supermarkets to maintain some semblance of order, before it came up with an innovative new strategy for shortening the lines: kicking people out of them. Now they’re rationing spots in line, based on the last digit of people’s national ID cards.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that all the problems are the fault of the private sector.

It’s a man-made tragedy, and the men who made it won’t fix it. Maduro, for his part, blames the shortages on the “parasitic” private sector.

It goes without saying, of course, that Maduro and the rest of the political elite avoid the consequences of bad economic policy. They all enjoy luxurious lifestyles, financed at the expense of ordinary Venezuelans. Moreover, I’m sure that Maduro and his cronies all have big bank accounts in New York or London.

So I can understand why they like the current system.

I’m genuinely mystified, though, why there are still people who think statism is better than capitalism.

I guess it’s mostly naiveté, a triumph of good intentions over real-world results.

Even though most of these leftists presumably would go crazy if they had to live without the products made possible by capitalism.

Just as portrayed in this video. And this satirical image.

Those of us who reside in the real world, by contrast, already understand the difference between capitalism and statism.

P.S. Venezuela is an economic basket case, but that apparently means it ranks higher than the United States on the “happy planet index” put together by some clueless statists.

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The United States is burdened with some very bad policies that hinder growth and undermine competitiveness. But sometimes you can win a race if your rivals have policies that are even more self-destructive.

And that’s a good description of why the U.S. economy is out-performing Europe and why people in the United States enjoy higher living standards than their European counterparts.

In 2010, I shared data showing that Americans had far higher levels of consumption than Europeans.

In 2012, I updated the numbers and showed once again that people in America far ahead of folks in Europe.

And here are the most recent numbers from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, showing “average individual consumption” for various member nations of that international bureaucracy.

The average for all OECD nations is 100, and the average for eurozone nations is 96, so the U.S. score of 147 illustrates how much better off Americans are than citizens of other countries.

The only nations that are even close to the United States have oil (like Norway) or are low-tax international financial centers (such as Luxembourg and Switzerland).

So why is the United States doing better than Europe?

There are two responses.

First, notwithstanding what I’ve just written, it’s a bit misleading to compare the U.S. to Europe. Simply stated, there are vast differences among European nations in terms of policies and living standards, much more than you find between and among American states.

There are nations such as Switzerland and Finland, for instance, that rank above the United States in Economic Freedom of the World. But there are also highly statist and moribund countries such as France, Italy, and Greece, as well as transition economies in Eastern Europe that are still trying to catch up after decades of communist oppression.

So overall America-vs-Europe comparisons should be accompanied by a grain of salt.

Second, now that we’ve ingested some salt, let’s draw some general conclusions about the role of public policy. Most important, nations with bigger governments and more intervention (as is the case for many European countries) generally don’t grow as fast or have the same living standards as nations with smaller governments and more reliance on competitive markets.

The comparisons can get complicated because there are a wide range of policies that impact economic performance (many people focus on fiscal policy, but trade, regulation, monetary policy, and the rule of law are equally important). Comparisons also can get confusing because there are some relatively rich nations with bad policy and some relatively poor nations with good policy, which is why it is important to look at how rich or poor nations are (or were) when there were significant changes in policy.

For instance, many nations in Western Europe became relatively rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when the overall burden of government was very small. Now they’ve adopted welfare states and growth is much slower (or, in some cases, nonexistent), but they’re oftentimes still in better shape than nations (such as Estonia and Chile) that only recently have liberalized their economies.

Now that we’ve gone through all this background, let’s look at a couple of stories that make me pessimistic about Europe’s future because they capture the mentality that seems dominant among continental policy makers.

First, one of the bright spots for the continent is that there’s been vigorous corporate tax competition. In other words, politicians have been under pressure to lower tax burdens on the business community because of concerns that jobs and investment will migrate to nations with better policy.

As you can imagine, this irks the political class (even though lower rates haven’t resulted in less revenue!).

So you won’t be surprised to learn that there’s a new push for tax harmonization in Europe. Here are some of the details from a news report.

France, Germany and Italy have joined forces to outlaw tax competition between EU countries in a letter to the European Commission. …the language and tone in the joint letter to the new Economic and Taxation Commissioner, Pierre Moscovici, is much more aggressive than in the past. …the letter from the finance ministers of the eurozone’s three largest economies says that “the lack of tax harmonisation in the European Union is one of the main causes allowing aggressive tax planning, base erosion and profit-shifting to develop”. …Vanessa Mock, commission spokeswoman said Mr Moscovici “welcomes these significant contributions to the work being carried out by the commission”.

Hmmm…., the Frenchmen who is the Economic and Taxation Commissioner “welcomes” a call from the governments of France, Germany, and Italy to outlaw tax competition. I’m shocked, shocked, by this development.

But as one British politician explained, this approach of higher business taxes will further undermine European economic vitality.

Now let’s shift to our second story, which illustrates the self-serving greed of the political elite at the European Commission.

Here are some passages from a story on the spectacular golden parachutes offered to outgoing senior Eurocrats. And we’ll focus on the former President of the European Council since he’s such a deserving target of ridicule.

Herman Van Rompuy will be entitled to more than £500,000 for doing nothing at the taxpayer’s expense over the next three years, after finishing his term as president of Europe. After standing down on Monday, the former president of the European Council will be paid £133,723 a year, 55 per cent of his basic salary, until December 2017 – to ease him back into life outside the world of Brussels officialdom.

Gee, how kind of European taxpayers to “ease him back” into the real world.

Except, of course, Van Rompuy’s never been in the real world. He’s had his snout in the public trough his entire life.

And he also gets to pay far less tax on this money compared to the poor slobs in the private sector who are footing the bill for this official largesse.

…The “transitional allowance” does not require Mr Van Rompuy to do any work at all and the cash will be paid under reduced rates of EU “community” tax, which are far lower than taxation in his native country of Belgium. …Mr Van Rompuy has not been a stranger to controversy over the perks of EU officialdom since he took the post in December 2009. He was widely criticised four years ago for using his official motorcade of five limousines as a taxi service to take his family on 325-mile round trip to Paris airport en route to a private holiday in the Caribbean. …The cost of Mr Van Rompuy’s retirement is part of a much larger bill for the handover of the administration in EU as former European Commissioners serving in the last Brussels executive pocket “transitional allowances” worth around £30million.

This scam has been in operation for several years, and keep in mind that excessive pay and lavish perks for commissioners are matched by excessive pay and lavish perks for member of the European Parliament (including taxpayer-financed penile implants).

And lavish pay and perks for European Union bureaucrats.

And don’t forget these are the folks who are pushing for bigger government and higher taxes on a pan-European basis. Like many of our politicians in Washington, they think the private sector is some sort of piñata that is capable of producing endless amounts of revenue to finance ever-expanding government.

Even though the evidence from Greece, Italy, Spain, etc, confirms that Margaret Thatcher was right when she warned that the problem with big government is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.

P.S. European bureaucrats have decided taxpayer-financed tourism is a human right. And they also use taxpayer money to produce self-aggrandizing comic books.

P.P.S. The European political elite are so bad that even President Obama has felt compelled to oppose some of their tax initiatives.

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Early this year, I shared an amusing but accurate image that showed an important difference between capitalism and socialism.

And in 2012, I posted a comparison of Detroit and Hiroshima to illustrate the damage of big government.

Well, if you combine those concepts, you get this very pointed look at the evolution of Cuban socialism and Hong Kong capitalism.

Some might dismiss these photos as being unrepresentative, and it’s reasonable to be skeptical. After all, I’m sure it would be easy to put together a series of photos that make it seem as if the United States is suffering from decay while France is enjoying a boom.

So let’s go to the data. In previous posts, I’ve shared comparisons of long-run economic performance in market-oriented nations and statist countries. Examples include Chile vs. Argentina vs. VenezuelaNorth Korea vs. South Korea, Cuba vs. Chile, Ukraine vs. Poland, Hong Kong vs. ArgentinaSingapore vs. Jamaica, and the United States vs. Hong Kong and Singapore.

Now let’s add Cuba vs. Hong Kong to the mix.

Wow, this is amazing. Through much of the 1950s, Hong Kong and Cuba were economically similar, and both were very close to the world average.

Then Hong Kong became a poster child for capitalism while Cuba became an outpost of Soviet communism. And, as you might expect, the people of Hong Kong prospered.

What about the Cubans? Well, I suppose a leftist could argue that they’re all equally poor and that universal deprivation somehow makes Cuban society better Hong Kong, where not everybody gets rich at the same rate.

But even that would be a lie since Cuba’s communist elite doubtlessly enjoys a very comfortable lifestyle. So while the rest of the country endures hardships such as a toilet paper shortage, the party bosses presumably drink champagne and eat caviar.

The bottom line is that statists still don’t have an acceptable answer for my two-part challenge.

P.S. If you prefer stories rather than images or data, this updated version of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper makes a key point about incentives and redistribution. And you get a similar message from the PC version of the Little Red Hen.

P.P.S. Cuba’s system is so wretched that even Fidel Castro confessed it is a failure. So maybe there’s hope that Obama will have a similar epiphany about American-style statism!

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When I wrote last week about “social capital” as a key determinant of long-run prosperity, I didn’t realize I would generate a lot of feedback. Including several requests for more information.

Which creates a small problem since the field is so large that it’s difficult to provide an overview.

If people were asking questions on the flat tax, Laffer Curve, or the economic impact of government spending, I could give succinct and targeted responses. On the topic of social capital, by contrast, I almost don’t know where to start.

The first thing I should say is that scholars have been addressing these issues for centuries, even if in some cases they didn’t use the phrase “social capital” and instead talked about tradition, culture, ethics, morality, or civic attitudes.

Many people know Adam Smith wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, but he also wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments in the 1700s, and that book deals with issues relating to social capital.

Or consider the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote about social capital in Democracy in America in the 1800s. More recently, in the 1970s, Friedrich Hayek discussed ethics and attitudes as part of his three-volume masterpiece on Law, Legislation, and Liberty.

Moving into the 21st Century, the issue of “culture” and economics also was the subject of an in-depth online symposium at the Cato Institute in 2006. Here’s some of what Lawrence Harrison wrote.

Some economists have confronted culture and found it helpful in understanding economic development. Perhaps the broadest statement comes from the pen of David Landes: “Max Weber was right. If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes almost all the difference.” Elaborating on Landes’s theme, Japanese economist Yoshihara Kunio writes, “One reason Japan developed is that it had a culture suitable for it. The Japanese attached importance to (1) material pursuits; (2) hard work; (3) saving for the future; (4) investment in education; and (5) community values.” …More broadly, the analysis of religions suggests that Protestant, Jewish, and Confucian societies do better than Catholic, Islamic, and Orthodox Christian societies because they substantially share the progress-prone Economic Behavior values of the typology whereas the lagging religions tend toward the progress-resistant values. Symbolic of this divide is the persistent ambivalence of the Catholic Church toward market economics… But religion is not the only source of progress-prone economic behavior: the Basques are highly entrepreneurial and highly Catholic; and Chile, boasting the most successful sustained economic performance in Latin America, is also the most Catholic.

And here are portions of Gregory Clark’s contribution.

The standard economist emphasizes that stability, incentives, and laissez-faire are all the magic needed for riches. …attempts to introduce culture into economic discussions so far have been generally either ad hoc, vacuous, blatantly false, or void of testability. …Weber, as is well known, thought that certain types of Protestant ideology were conducive to economic growth. …The Catholics of modern southern Germany, however, would think they have a thing or two to teach their Protestant compatriots of the north about the virtues of hard work and self-reliance. The dour and thrifty Calvinists of my native Scotland look with envy now at the successes of the Catholic Irish, and ask how they can emulate this.Protestants on average may have values associated with economic growth, but that seems to have nothing to do with their specific theology. Lawrence Harrison may seem to escape some of this problem of identifying cultural variation by using a survey of 25 factors that purports to identify systematically the essential elements of cultures that promote high incomes and growth: universal progress cultures. He divides cultures into the “progress-prone” and the “progress-resistant.” In progress-prone societies, for example, people assert “I can influence my destiny.” In progress-resistant societies “fatalism” rules. Progress-prone societies have better economic performance. …The problem with both the Harrison and McClelland approaches is that the responses may reflect just the realities of the institutional framework people live within, rather than their cultural attitudes. A North Korean who reports “fatalism” or “resignation” is plausibly no different culturally from a South Korean who states “I can influence my destiny.”

My grad school classmate and now Professor Pete Boettke adds his two cents.

…we do need to have market prices to allocate resources efficiently. The “getting the prices right” mantra is not wrong, just incomplete. In order to get market prices, we do need to have private property rights and the enforcement of contracts. The “getting the institutions in place” mantra isn’t wrong either. Many of the significant advances in political economy during the 1990s, when the problems of socialist transition were at the forefront of professional and public policy attention, were related to a change of emphasis from “getting the prices right” to “getting the institutions in place.” …In economic terms, culture is a tool for the self-regulation of behavior, and as such it either lowers or raises the costs of enforcing the rules of the game. A free society works best when the need for policemen is least. If the rules of conduct correlated with high levels of economic well-being are viewed by a culture as illegitimate, then those rules will be violated unless there are strong monitors. The costs of monitoring may be so high that the social order cannot in fact be sustained. …Scholars such as Joel Moykr in The Levers of Riches have documented the great technological innovations that fueled growth during the Industrial Revolution, but Mokyr also documents the underlying belief systems and attitudes that had to be present for those innovations to be discovered, implemented, and put into common practice. Without that underlying cultural commitment to scientific discovery, innovation would have been stifled. We can say the same for beliefs and attitudes that undermine private property, mutually beneficial exchange, and commercial development. …Whatever advantages a culture may have, they will not be realized under bad institutions. And whatever disadvantages a culture may have, they will slowly erode, and the culture will improve, when people get to live under institutions of political and economic freedom. Culture can act as a constraint, but it is also a malleable constraint.

James Robinson uses China and Chile as examples that suggest good policies and institutions are key.

If the Chinese do well in Indonesia because they have such a good culture, then why is China one of the world’s poorest countries?  …surely the culture which supposedly is conducive to prosperity in China is an old one and long predates the acceleration of growth which took place in the late 1970s. …culture was held constant and institutions and policies changed while growth accelerated. From this it seems to follow that the reasons countries are poor has nothing to do with culture but rather policies and institutions that do not create the right incentive environment. …What about Chile, the one Latin American success story? Lawrence Harrison argues that Chile has a unique culture, but then why did it manifest itself so recently? It is only since the mid-1980s that the growth path of Chile has distinguished it from other Latin American countries. …culture might matter, but doubters like me will not be convinced by the evidence here.

But this topic gets attention at places other than libertarian think tanks.

Here are some excerpts from a World Bank study looking at the degree to which culture matters for development.

In the abstract there is no doubt a general acceptance that a particular work ethic, a system of personal values and attitudes must have a role in guiding a population along a particular development path; indeed, how could it be otherwise? …Guiso, Sapienza and Zingales (2006) conducted a regression analysis combining survey and macroeconomic data across 53 countries and found that “a 10 percentage point increase in the share of people who think thriftiness is a value that should be taught to children is linked to a 1.3 percentage point increase in the national saving rate”. Tabellini (2010) also showed that European regions with a stronger belief in individual effort tend to have higher GDP per capita and GDP growth. …Lee Kuan Yew speaks of a set of values—“thrift, hard work, filial piety and loyalty to the extended family, and, most of all, the respect for scholarship and learning”—as having provided a powerful cultural backdrop for the development of East Asian countries… Max Weber famously made the case about the role of culture in development in his essay “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” arguing that Protestantism promoted the rise of modern capitalism “by defining and sanctioning an ethic of everyday behavior that conduced to business success” comprising “hard work, honesty, seriousness, the thrifty use of money and time.

Last but not least, let’s consider some practical applications based on a recently published New York Times column by David Brooks.

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the biggest surprise is how badly most of the post-communist nations have done since. …In the bottom group are basket-case nations that haven’t even recovered the level of real income they had in 1990, as measured by real G.D.P. per capita. These failures include Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia, Serbia and others — about 20 percent of the post-communist world. “Basically,” Milanovic writes, these “are countries with at least three to four wasted generations. …The next group includes those nations that are merely moderate failures, with per capita economic growth rates under 1.7 percent a year. These are nations like Russia and Hungary that continue to fall steadily behind the West — about 40 percent of the post-communist world by population. The third group includes those with growth rates between 1.7 percent and 1.9 percent. These countries, like the Czech Republic and Slovenia, are holding steady with the capitalist world. Finally there are the successes, the nations that are catching up. …There are only five countries that have emerged as successful capitalist economies: Albania, Poland, Belarus, Armenia and Estonia. To put it another way, only 10 percent of the people living in post-communist nations are living in a place that successfully made the transition to capitalism.

I wouldn’t necessarily have listed Albania and Belarus as success stories, but it’s certainly true that the countries that comprised the former Soviet Bloc have seen a lot of divergence.

Heck, check out this graph comparing Ukraine and Poland if you want a remarkable example.

The question is why did they behave differently?

Why did some countries succeed while others failed? First, leaders in some countries simply made better political decisions. Most of these countries enacted economic reforms, like deregulating prices and privatizing nationalized companies. Some nations like Estonia and Poland enacted reforms radically and quickly… The quick and radical group saw a slightly bigger output drop over the near term but much more prosperity over the long run. …Finally, and most important, there is the level of values. A nation’s economy is nestled in its moral ecology. Economic performance is tied to history, culture and psychology. …[Some] countries lacked this cultural brew. Worse, life was marked by fear, by arbitrary power, by suspicion that people are watching you, by distrust. People raised in this atmosphere of distrust have trouble forming companies and associations. They are more likely to be driven by a grab-what-you-can logic — a culture of corruption and appropriation. …The lesson of the past 25 years is that democratic prosperity is built on layers of small achievements 10,000 fathoms deep. Communism ripped at all that bottom-up society-making and damaged the psyches of its victims. Healing from those wounds is gradual.

So what’s the bottom line?

I’m not really sure, other than to assert that we will never triumph over statism if Americans think it is morally acceptable to live off their neighbors via the coercive power of government.

In many of my fiscal policy speeches, I explain that we face a major crisis because of demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs, but then tell audiences that we can solve the problem with structural program reforms.

To wrap things up, I often close with this Powerpoint slide. As you can see, the first two themes are very familiar to regular readers. Our problem is too much government spending and the solution is my Golden Rule of spending restraint.

But the third bullet point is really about social capital.

In other words, we can share all sorts of evidence about how some nations grow faster with small government and free markets.

We can also highlight how statist policies slow growth.

But none of those arguments will mean much in the long run if people prefer to be wards of the state.

P.S. My concern with personal morality helps to explain why I think libertarians and social conservatives should be natural allies.

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Some of my left-wing friends have groused that Democrats didn’t do well in the mid-term elections because they failed to highlight America’s strong economic performance.

I’m tempted to ask “what strong economic performance?!?” After all, median household income is lower than it was when Obama took office. And labor force participation rates have plummeted.

However, my leftist buddies have a point. America’s economy does look good when compared to Europe.

But why should that be the benchmark for success?

If you look at today’s growth numbers compared to data on historical growth in the United States, you get a much different picture. Here’s some of what Doug Holtz-Eakin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office, wrote as part of a study for the National Chamber Foundation.

Over the entire postwar period from 1947 to 2013, the trend for economic growth in America was 3.3%. Unfortunately, looking at the period as a whole masks a marked deterioration in U.S. growth performance. Since 2007, the rate has downshifted to a mere 1.5%, which translates into a meager 0.7% in growth per capita in the United States. …At the current pace of growth, it will take 99 years for incomes to double. The poor U.S. growth performance is a threat to American families and their futures.

Here’s a chart from the report showing the 10-year rolling average of inflation-adjusted growth in the United States. As you can see, there was plenty of variation, but America usually enjoyed growth average a bit above 3 percent. But then, beginning about 2007/2008, that average dropped below 2 percent.

If you look at projections until 2024, you’ll notice that growth is projected to improve.

But you have to wonder if those projections will materialize.

And, even if they do, growth will only be about 2.5 percent annually, so we’ll still be enduring sub-par economic performance.

Moreover, it appears that those projections may be unrealistic. Here’s another chart from the National Chamber Foundation. It wasn’t in the study, but it’s worth including since it shows how the American economy has been routinely under-performing in recent years.

With this track record of anemic economic performance, it’s hard to have much sympathy for Democrats who thought they should be rewarded on election day. Doing better than France and Italy is not exactly a message that will resonate with voters, particularly when many people have been alive long enough to remember the good growth that America enjoyed during the Reagan and Clinton years, when policy was much more focused on small government and free markets.

But let’s set aside politics and consider the impact of growth on regular Americans rather than politicians. Holtz-Eakin explores some of the ramifications if the economy grows faster over the next decade.

Imagine that growth averages instead 3.3%—just one percentage point higher—for the next 10 years. …A full percentage point would eliminate $3 trillion in debt and slow the growth of the national debt. …Growing at a 3% rate means 1.2 million more jobs, and 1.3 million more if growth escalated to 3.5% for the next 10 years. …Three percent growth would mean another $4,200 in average incomes, while 3.5% growth would boost this an additional $4,500 to nearly $9,000. …faster economic growth would improve the future for the poor, the middle class, and the affluent alike.

By the way, it’s worth noting that faster growth leads to less debt mostly because the government collects a lot more tax revenue when people have higher incomes. And even a knee-jerk anti-taxer like me won’t complain if the IRS gets more money simply because people are more prosperous (though I reserve the right to then argue for lower tax rates).

Now let’s look at the most important question, which is to ask what policies will restore traditional American growth rates.

Doug has several suggestions, starting with entitlement reform.

The policy problem facing the United States is that spending rises above any reasonable metric of taxation for the indefinite future. ….Over the long term, the budget problem is primarily a spending problem, and correcting it requires reductions in the growth of large mandatory spending programs—entitlements like Social Security and federal health programs.

I certainly agree. Assuming, of course, that he wants good entitlement reform rather than gimmicks.

He also suggests tax reform.

The tax code is in need of dramatic improvements, including a modern international tax system, a lower corporation income tax rate, correspondingly lower rates on business income tax via so-called pass-thru entities, and broad elimination of tax preferences to preserve efficient allocation of investment… At the same time, one could improve work incentives by simplifying individual income tax rate brackets (recent proposals have suggested two brackets of 10% and 25%) and exclude a substantial portion of dividends and capital gains from taxation.

Once again, I agree. Though I reserve the right to change my mind and become a vociferous opponent if advocates decide that they wanted to finance these reforms with a value-added tax.

The study also includes suggestions for regulatory reform and other policy changes, but this post is too long already, so let’s now return to the central theme of economic growth.

Or, to be more accurate, the absence of economic growth. Because that’s the legacy of Obamanomics. We’re adopting European-style economic policies, so is it any surprise that our growth rates are declining in the direction of European-style stagnation?

And, to be fair, I’ll be the first to state that this bad trend began under Bush. Big government hinders prosperity, regardless of whether the policies are imposed by Republicans or Democrats.

Just as you get faster growth with good policy, even if those policies are implemented with a Democrat in the White House.

Simply stated, if you want better economic performance, there’s no substitute for free markets and small government.

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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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