Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s nominee for President, supposedly made a political mistake when he couldn’t name any foreign political leaders that he admires.
If his inability to produce a list of names was the result of being clueless about world affairs, then I suppose he can be legitimately criticized. But what if he couldn’t name an admirable foreign leader because, well, there aren’t any?
I pay reasonably close attention to global economic developments (hence the name of this blog), and I can’t pick out a single foreign head of state who deserves strong praise.
Even after a couple of days of contemplation, I don’t have any strong candidates. If you put a gun to my head, I suppose I might mention John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, or Bibi Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel. Both have implemented some market-oriented reforms, though not the bold and dramatic reforms needed to make me a huge fan.
But if we broaden the search to include former foreign leaders (limited to those who are still alive), then I have two people who belong on the list.
Mart Laar – The former Prime Minister of Estonia is an immensely admirable human being. He deserves to be at the top of the list not only because of the free-market reforms he implemented (such as tax reform and free trade) after taking office, but also because of his immense courage to be a public leader in the campaign for democracy, freedom, and human rights when Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union. There was a very significant risk that his behavior could have resulted in being sent to Siberia, or even summary execution.
Kaspar Villiger – He served as President of Switzerland, Vice President of the country, a member of the Swiss Federal Council, Minister of Finance, and Minister of the Military, and the country during his time in office experienced plenty of prosperity and stability. But what makes him most admirable is that he is the official who deserves the most credit for Switzerland’s very successful spending cap, known as the Debt Brake.
I’m certainly willing to admit that there may be other people who should be included. Peru, for instance, has enjoyed substantial economic liberalization in recent decades. Is there a former President or Prime Minister who deserves the credit? Perhaps, but I simply don’t know. And Lithuania and Latvia have implemented a lot of reforms. Is there a public official in those nations that played a big role, just like Mart Laar in Estonia? Perhaps, but again I confess to being inadequately informed.
Since two names are not enough, let’s broaden the list to also consider former policy makers in other nations who had cabinet-level posts.
Jose Piñera – The former Secretary of Labor and Social Security in Chile, Jose helped implement many market-oriented reforms. He’s most famous for the system of personal retirement accounts that are now seen as a role model all over the world, but he also guided the privatization of the mining industry. Some say that his legacy is tarnished because his reforms were implemented while Chile was ruled by General Augusto Pinochet, but critics should note that Jose was the one who re-legalized labor unions and recognize that he was a strong fighter for political liberalization as well as economic liberalization.
Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson of New Zealand – I wrote just recently about the overlooked success story of New Zealand. Much of the credit goes to Douglas, the Finance Minister of a Labour Party government from 1984 to 1988, and Ruth Richardson, the Finance Minister of a National Party government from 1990 to 1993. Douglas started the process of economic liberalization and pushed for big tax-rate reductions (his proposals for a flat tax unfortunately never made it across the finish line). Richardson is most famous (or infamous to statists) for imposing strict spending discipline.
Ivan Mikloš – A former Finance Minister of Slovakia, Ivan oversaw the introduction of both a flat tax and personal retirement accounts, policies that helped contribute to rapid growth and the nation becoming known as the Tatra Tiger.
Once again, I’ll freely acknowledge that there are other people around the world who presumably deserve to be on this list. Feel free to mention them in the comments section.
I’ll close by adding an “honorable mention” section.
Stephen Harper and Paul Martin – These two former Canadian Prime Ministers are not libertarian firebrands, but you can’t argue with their nation’s success. Canada is now tied for 5th among all nations for economic freedom, in part because of spending restraint, corporate tax reforms, and other market-friendly policies.
So if Gary Johnson is asked again about foreign leaders he admires, I hope this column will be a useful cheat sheet.