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Archive for the ‘Property Rights’ Category

Over the years, I’ve had fun mocking the silly extremism of the environmental movement.

That being said, protecting the environment is a worthy and important goal.

And that’s why some of us want to give the private sector a bigger role.

John Stossel, for instance, has a must-watch video on how capitalism can save endangered rhinos.

Professor Philip Booth expands on the lesson in the video and urges broad application of market forces to preserve the environment.

Especially well-enforced property rights.

…what is needed for better husbandry of ecological resources is more widespread and deeper establishment of property rights together with their enforcement. The cause of environmentalism is often associated with the Left. This is despite the fact that some of the worst environmental outcomes in the history of our planet have been associated with Communist governments. …a great deal of serious work has been produced by those who believe in market or community-based solutions to environmental problems, and a relatively small role for government. For example, Ronald Coase and Elinor Ostrom are two Nobel Prize winners in economics who have made profound contributions to our understanding of how markets and communities can promote environmental conservation. Indeed, the intellectual and moral high ground when it comes to environmentalism ought to be taken by those who believe in private property, strong community institutions and a free economy.

Philip explains why private ownership produces conservation.

If things are owned, they will tend to be looked after. The owner of a lake will not fish it to near extinction (or even over-fish the lake to a small degree) because the breeding potential of the fish would be reduced.

He then explains the downside of public ownership.

On the other hand, if the lake is not owned by anybody, or if it is owned by the government and fishing is unregulated, the lake will be fished to extinction because nobody has any benefit from holding back. Local businesses may well also pollute the lake if there are no well-defined ownership rights. The much-cited work here is Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons (1968), though, in fact, Hardin was simply referring back to a pamphlet by William Forster Lloyd which was written in 1833. In that pamphlet, a situation was described whereby common land was open to grazing by all. The land would then be over-grazed because a person would get the benefit of putting additional cattle on the land without the cost that arises from over-grazing which would be shared by all users.

He points out that one advantage of Brexit is that the U.K. can implement a fisheries system based on property rights.

Now that fishing policy has been repatriated, the UK should establish property rights in sea fisheries. Few would seriously question private property when it comes to the land. For example, it is rare these days to find people who would suggest that farms should be nationalised or collectivised or returned to an unregulated commons where anybody can graze their animals without restriction. It would be understood that this would lead to chaos, inefficiency and environmental catastrophe.

And since we have real-world evidence that fisheries based on property rights are very successful, hopefully the U.K. government will implement this reform.

So what’s the bottom line on capitalism and the environment?

If we want sustainable environmental outcomes, the answer almost never lies with government control, but with the establishment and enforcement of property rights over environmental resources. This provides the incentive to nurture and conserve. Where the government does intervene it should try to mimic markets. When it comes to the environment, misguided government intervention can lead to conflict and poor environmental outcomes. The best thing the government can do is put its own house in order and ensure that property rights are enforced through proper policing and courts systems. That is certainly the experience of forested areas in South America.

Let’s close by noting one other reason to give the market a bigger role. Simply stated, environmentalists seem to have no sense of cost-benefit analysis. Instead, we get bizarre policies that seem motivated primarily by virtue signalling.

And don’t forget green energy programs, which impose heavy costs on consumers and also are a combination of virtue signalling and cronyism.

No wonder many of us don’t trust the left on global warming, even if we recognize it may be a real issue.

P.S. There is at least one employee at the Environmental Protection Agency who deserves serious consideration for the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

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Because I’m worried about the future of the nation, I want a national discussion and debate about big issues such as the entitlement crisis and our insane tax code.

No such luck. The crowd in Washington and the media have been focusing on sideshow topics such as which side has the most fake news, the purported sloppiness of executive orders, and the Trump-Putin “bromance.”

And we now have a culture-war fight in DC thanks to Trump’s new policy on transgender bathroom usage.

The Justice and Education departments said Wednesday that public schools no longer need to abide by the Obama-era directive instructing them to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms of their chosen gender. …The agencies said they withdrew the guidance to “in order to further and more completely consider the legal issues involved.” Anti-bullying safeguards for students will not be affected by the change, according to the letter. …There won’t be any immediate impact on schools, because the Obama guidance had been temporarily blocked since August by a federal judge in Texas, one of 13 states that sued over the directive.

Though, to be fair, Trump didn’t start this culture war. He’s simply responding to a battle that Obama triggered.

Moreover, even though I prefer that we focus attention of big-picture fiscal and economic issues, I’m not asserting that this issue should be swept under the rug.

That being said, I think the issue would largely disappear if we simply recognized boundaries. Not everything should be decided in Washington. Yes, it’s the federal government’s job to guarantee and protect universally applicable constitutional rights, but some decisions belong at the state and local level. And most decisions should take place in the private sector and civil society.

Here’s some of what I wrote in late 2015.

One of the great things about being a libertarian is that you have no desire for government sanctions against peaceful people who are different than you are, and that should be a very popular stance. You can be a libertarian who is also a serious fundamentalist, yet you have no desire to use the coercive power of government to oppress or harass people who are (in your view) pervasive sinners. For instance, you may think gay sex is sinful sodomy, but you don’t want it to be illegal. Likewise, you can be a libertarian with a very libertine lifestyle, yet you have no desire to use the coercive power of government to oppress and harass religious people. It’s wrong (in your view) to not cater a gay wedding, but you don’t want the government to bully bakers and florists. In other words, very different people can choose to be libertarian, yet we’re all united is support of the principle that politicians shouldn’t pester people so long as those folks aren’t trying to violate the life, liberty, or property of others. …And when you’re motivated by these peaceful principles, which imply a very small public sector and a very big private sector and civil society, it’s amazing how many controversies have easy solutions.

Let’s look at some more recent sensible commentary on this topic.

Roy Cordato wrote about the controversy in his state of North Carolina.

…lost in all the rhetoric surrounding this issue is the truth about both the original Charlotte law and the state’s response to it. …the Charlotte, North Carolina, city council passed an “antidiscrimination” law… The centerpiece of this law was a provision that prohibits businesses providing bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers from segregating usage of those facilities by gender, biologically defined. Biological males or females must be allowed to use the facilities of the opposite sex if they claim that that is the sex they identify with psychologically. …This ordinance was an assault on the rights of private property owners and economic freedom, regardless of one’s religious beliefs. …In a free society based on property rights and free markets, as all free societies must be, a privately owned business would have the right to decide whether or not it wants separate bathrooms strictly for men and women biologically defined, bathrooms for men and women subjectively or psychologically defined, completely gender neutral bathrooms with no labels on the doors, or no bathrooms at all.

And Roy says that the state law (which overturned the Charlotte ordinance) was reasonable in that regard.

The law in North Carolina that so many progressives are up in arms about does not prohibit businesses from having bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, etc., that allow use by people of all genders defined biologically, psychologically, or whatever. …the state of North Carolina codified a basic libertarian principle: the separation of bathroom and state.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner has a similar perspective.

Government needs to get out of culture war issues as much as possible, the question of transgendered people in bathrooms included. …In North Carolina, Charlotte’s City Council made the first mistake. …the city passed a non-discrimination ordinance…that…basically legislated bathroom admission. …Charlotte passed this law, exposing private business owners to lawsuits and legal punishments. …The ordinance also stirred up fears of predators — men getting into a ladies’ room thanks to this law, and then assaulting or leering at vulnerable women. Nobody showed that this was a real threat, but the same mindset behind the Charlotte law — we need a law to ban a possible bad thing — drove the state legislature to pass HB 2. HB 2 blocked Charlotte and other cities from implementing their antidiscrimination laws. …both the liberal legislation and the conservative reaction were out of place. Charlotte shouldn’t have stuck itself into private restrooms, and the state shouldn’t have stuck itself into the city’s sticking itself into restrooms.

By the way, Tim’s column also makes the key point that people should be decent human beings. A bit of civilized consideration and politeness goes a long way when dealing with potentially uncomfortable situations.

Writing for Reason, Scott Shackford opines on the topic, beginning with an appropriate defense of transgender people.

Transgender citizens have the same right as everybody else to live their lives as they please without unnecessary government interference. …As a legal and ethical matter, …it generally shouldn’t matter why somebody identifies as transgender. It’s their right. In the event that somebody decides to pose as transgender in order to engage in some sort of fraud or criminal behavior, there are already laws to punish such actions. …so it would be appropriate that in any situation where the government treats a transgender person on the basis of his or her identity it respects their form of gender expression. That means the government should allow for any official documentation—such as a driver’s license—that requires the listing of a person’s sex to match the identity by which a person lives, as much as it’s feasibly possible. …Transgender citizens are seeing some big inroads both culturally and legally, and we should all see these generally as positive developments. …Transgender citizens have the right to demand the government treat them fairly and with dignity.

But Scott correctly observes that the government should not have the power to use coercion to mandate specific choices by private individuals or private businesses.

In the private sector, it’s all a matter of cultural negotiation and voluntary agreements. The law should not be used to mandate private recognition of transgender needs, whether it’s requiring insurance companies cover gender reassignment surgeries or requiring private businesses to accommodate their bathroom choices. The reverse is also true: It would be inappropriate for the government to forbid insurance coverage or to require private businesses to police their own bathrooms to keep transgender folks out.

Last but not least, my colleague Neal McCluskey explains that federalism is part of the solution.

Much of this debate has been framed as conservatives versus liberals, or traditionalists versus social change. But the root problem is not differing views. It is government — especially federal — imposition. …Single-sex bathrooms and locker rooms have long been the norm, and privacy about our bodies — especially from the opposite sex — has long been coveted. …Of course, transgendered students should — must — be treated equally by public institutions, and their desire to use the facilities in which they feel comfortable is utterly understandable. By fair reckoning, we do not have a competition between good and evil, but what should be equally protected values and rights. How do we resolve this? …not with a federal mandate. …So how, in public schools, do we treat people equally who have mutually exclusive values and desires? We cannot. Open the bathrooms to all, and those who want single-sex facilities lose. Keep them closed, and transgender students lose. The immediate ramification of this is that decisions should be made at state, and preferably local, levels. At least let differing communities have their own rules.

But the real answer, Neal explains, is school choice.

…the long-term — and only true — solution is school choice. Attach money to students, give educators freedom to establish schools with their own rules and values, and let like-minded people freely associate. Impose on no one.  …We live in a pluralist society, and for that we should be eternally grateful. To keep that, and also be a free and equal society, people of different genders, values, etc., must be allowed to live as they see fit as long as they do not impose themselves on others. That is impossible if government imposes uniformity on all.

But I’ll admit that these libertarian principles don’t solve every problem. States will need to have some sort of policy. Not because of private businesses, which should get to choose their own policies. And not because of schools, which will be privately operated in my libertarian fantasy world and therefore also able to set their own policies.

But how should states handle bathrooms in public buildings? Even if there are less of them in a libertarian society, the issue will exist. And what about prisons in a libertarian world?

I don’t pretend to know exactly how these issues should be resolved. Conservatives argue that you should be defined by the gender on your birth certificate and leftists say you should be to choose your identify.

My gut instinct is to cut the baby in half (I’m such a moderate). Maybe the rule for prisons is not how you identify or what’s on your birth certificate, but what sort of…um…equipment you have. If you were born a man but had surgery (which is your right so long as you’re not asking me to pay for it), then you’re eligible for a women’s prison. Likewise, if you were born a woman and surgery gave you male genitalia (I confess I don’t know if that’s even possible), then you get assigned to a men’s prison.

Government bathrooms are an easier problem. From a practical perspective, I’m guessing the net result of this fight – at least for schools and public buildings – will be a shift to single-use bathrooms. In other words, multi-person facilities for men and women will be replaced by a bunch of private bathrooms.

This will be bad news for taxpayers, because it is more expensive to build and operate such bathrooms.

And it will be bad news for women because that means they will be forced to use bathrooms that are less pleasant because men…um…tend to be less fastidious about…um…personal habits such as lifting toilet seats before…well…you know.

Men only have to deal with the messes made by other men when we have to sit down in a bathroom. And even then, the problem is minimized since other men generally will use urinals when they…um…don’t need to sit down.

But if we have a world of one-person-at-a-time bathrooms, women’s lives will be less pleasant.

P.S. Speaking of bathrooms, my only goal is simply knowing how to operate the various controls. I’ve been totally stumped by the design of foreign showers and, if you check out the postscript of this column, very impressed by the sophistication of foreign toilets.

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What’s the fundamental problem with redistributionist economic policy?

As a libertarian, I would answer with a philosophical argument against coercion. I think it is immoral for vote-seeking politicians, using the threat of imprisonment, to rob Peter to subsidize Paul.

But as an economist, the problem is incentives. Simply stated, redistribution from Peter to Paul undermines the incentive of either to produce. And the greater the level of plunder, as we see from extreme examples such as Venezuela and North Korea, the greater the damage.

This is a lesson that we should have learned from the earliest days of American history.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Richard Ebeling explains a very important lesson about incentives and human behavior. He begins by pointing out how the Pilgrims initially created a collectivist economic system.

The English Puritans…wanted to turn their backs on what they viewed as the materialistic and greedy corruption of the Old World. …they wanted to erect a New Jerusalem that would not only be religiously devout, but be built on a new foundation of communal sharing and social altruism. …all would work and share in common, knowing neither private property nor self-interested acquisitiveness.

But this system – what a shock – didn’t work.

What resulted is recorded in the journal of Governor William Bradford, the head of the colony. …The less industrious members of the colony came late to their work in the fields, and were slow and easy in their labors. Knowing that they and their families were to receive an equal share of whatever the group produced, they saw little reason to be more diligent their efforts. The harder working among the colonists became resentful that their efforts would be redistributed to the more malingering members of the colony. Soon they, too, were coming late to work and were less energetic in the fields.

Commenting about the downside of a system based on communal sharing, Richard shares a simple lesson in economics.

Because of the disincentives and resentments that spread among the population, crops were sparse and the rationed equal shares from the collective harvest were not enough to ward off starvation and death. Two years of communism in practice had left alive only a fraction of the original number of the Plymouth colonists.

And he also shows the economic lesson to be learned when the Pilgrims abandoned collectivism for private property.

Private ownership meant that there was now a close link between work and reward. Industry became the order of the day as the men and women in each family went to the fields on their separate private farms. When the harvest time came, not only did many families produce enough for their own needs, but they had surpluses that they could freely exchange with their neighbors for mutual benefit and improvement. …Hard experience had taught the Plymouth colonists the fallacy and error in the ideas of that since the time of the ancient Greeks had promised paradise through collectivism rather than individualism. …This is the lesson of the First Thanksgiving. …the triumph of capitalism over the failure of collectivism in all its forms.

The adverse consequences of 17th-century collectivism are examined in this video from Reason, which I try to share every Thanksgiving.

By the way, the Pilgrims weren’t the only early Americans to make the mistake of collectivist economics.

An article from the Mises Institute discusses a similar failed experiment in Jamestown.

The Jamestown colony in Virginia had similar experiences as they started under the same rules:

  1.  They were to own nothing.
  2.  They were to receive only as much food and clothing as they needed.
  3.  Everything that the men secured from trade or produced from the land had to go into the common storehouse.

Of the 104 men that started the Jamestown colony in 1607 only 38 survived the first year and even those had to be marched to the fields “to the beat of a drum” simply to grow food to keep them alive in the next year.

Fortunately, the Jamestown settlers learned that socialism doesn’t work.

And when a system based on private property was created, the results were spectacular.

Captain John Smith writes after the common store concept was abandoned:

When our people were fed out of the common store, and labored jointly together, glad was he could slip from his labor, or slumber over his task he cared not how, nay, the most honest among them would hardly take so much true pains in a week, as now for themselves they will do in a day. … We reaped not so much corn from the labors of thirty, as now three or four do provide for themselves.

Gee, people produce much more when they keep the fruits of their labor. What a radical concept!

On a more serious note, the lessons from Plymouth and Jamestown are the same lessons from France and Cuba.

The more government there is in a nation (imagine a spectrum of statism), the worse its economy will perform.

Let’s close with a Thanksgiving-themed addition to our collection of libertarian humor. This guy obviously prefers the moral argument against statism.

Not that I would recommend going overboard with libertarian intensity at a family gathering. Then you come across like the libertarian chicken, or the “missionary” from the 24-types-of-libertarians collage.

Just have friends and family sign up for International Liberty!

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I’ve previously argued that private property rights are a vital component of a pro-environment agenda.

Interestingly, the Washington Post sort of agrees. At least with regards to fisheries. In a recent editorial, it acknowledged that the current communal system doesn’t work.

The world’s fisheries, which feed billions of people, are in serious decline. The authors of a study released Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined 4,713 fisheries, accounting for 78 percent of the world’s annual catch, and found that only a third were in decent biological shape.

The editorial then points out that there’s an incentive to over-harvest because the oceans are communal property, which creates a “tragedy-of-the-commons” scenario.

…while the fishing industry as a whole has an interest in sustaining the fisheries that provide it profits and feed the world, individual fishermen have an incentive to take as much as they can as quickly as they can. Over time, they degrade the fisheries on which they rely, but if they want to stay in business, they have little choice.

And the editorial concludes that giving fishermen the property right to a “catch share” would create better incentives.

…governments have extremely effective policy options to eliminate this tragedy of the commons. …governments must give fishermen a stake in the overall health of their fisheries. …require fishermen to hold rights to catch a certain amount of seafood in a certain fishery, which allows governments to manage the total haul and reduces the frenzied competition to scoop up as much as possible as quickly as possible. Ideally, these “catch shares” could be bought and sold so that rights would end up with those who could fish most efficiently.

Some of the language in the editorial rubs me the wrong way, such as “require fishermen” and “allows governments to manage,” but the bottom line is that the new system would be much more akin to a genuine market based on property rights.

To understand, consider the following example. Imagine there’s a communally owned pasture and a bunch of sheep owners. Would there be any incentive for the individual shepherds to properly conserve and manage the pasture? Not really, because any grass that wasn’t eaten by their sheep would be eaten by another shepherd’s sheep. So you wind up with a system where all the shepherds have an incentive to have their sheep consume as much grass as possible as quickly as possible.

That doesn’t end well.

But what if the pasture was divided up so that each shepherd had a plot of land, along with the right to buy and sell that land? With that system, the incentive to practice good husbandry would radically change.

And that’s basically what happens when you create a property rights-based fisheries system.

And the Washington Post believes this kind of approach could be enormously beneficial.

If applied globally, modern management plans could rehabilitate the median fishery in less than a decade. By 2050, nearly every fishery on the planet would be healthy. The resulting benefits would be astonishing. Relative to business as usual, the refreshed catch would grow by an annual 16 million metric tons, and seafood stocks would rise by 619 million metric tons. Fishermen would see an annual $53 billion rise in profit, a jump of 64 percent. The world’s fisheries could feed more people, and the fishing industry could boom, too.

Wow, this is so effusive that it sounds like me describing the benefits of a flat tax.

But just like I rely on real-world evidence for my praise of the flat tax, there’s also real-world evidence for successful fisheries based on property rights.

Consider, for instance, the experience of New Zealand.

By the early 1980s, with dwindling inshore stocks and too many boats, the New Zealand fishing industry and the government realised that a new fisheries management system was needed. Measures such as moratoriums and controlled fisheries failed to work. The common warning that ‘too many boats are chasing too few fish’ was rephrased by one fisherman as, ‘too many boats chasing no fish’. Radical thinking emerged. …In October 1986, after two years of consultation and planning, the Quota Management System was introduced, with widespread industry support. …Under the quota system a sustainable total catch or harvest of fish was set. Individuals or companies were allocated the right to catch certain quantities of particular species. Quotas became like other forms of property – they could be leased, bought, sold or transferred.

And how has this system worked?

It’s been a big success.

New Zealand’s Quota Management System has been viewed internationally as successful. This is particularly in comparison with many of the world’s fisheries… New Zealand has (so far) largely avoided the significant stock collapses that have occurred in fisheries overseas. In the early 2000s the Ministry of Fisheries had records on the status of 60–70% of stocks. Of these, about 80% were at or near target levels for sustainable harvest, and the total allowable catch for some fish had even increased.

The Economist, meanwhile, has written about Iceland’s system.

Central to its policy are the individual transferable quotas given to each fishing boat for each species on the basis of her average catch of that fish over a three-year period. …Subject to certain conditions, quotas can be traded among boats. Bycatch must not be discarded. Instead it must be landed and recorded as part of that boat’s quota. If she has exhausted her quota, she must buy one from another boat… All quota changes, catches and landings are posted on the internet, enabling everybody to see what is going on. The idea is to let fishermen be guided by the market. …Iceland no longer suffers from overcapacity, and the catch per boat is increasing. …Iceland offers lessons for other countries. The essential elements of its policies are to give fishermen rights that offer a reasonable expectation of profitable long-term fishing by encouraging the conservation of stocks. The system is clear, open and fairly simple, and it is well policed. It thus enjoys the respect of fishermen.

And the contrast to the command-and-control system used by the European Union is dramatic.

This contrasts with the common fisheries policy of the EU… For years, the union has simultaneously discouraged and promoted fishing, even as stocks have declined. Overfishing has intensified and the overcapacity of the fleet a few years ago rose to the point where the number of boats was almost twice the number needed for a sustainable harvest. The EU has offered inducements to those who gave up fishing even as it provided subsidies… The EU’s fisheries policy has long been notorious for its destructiveness, epitomised by the practice it either mandates or encourages of chucking back dead fish that are not big enough or not valuable enough, or just the wrong sort. …No wonder the EU’s stocks are 88% overfished, as the European Commission itself now admits. …No minister is present to represent the taxpayer, the consumer or the environment, let alone the fish.

The key, everywhere in the world, is a system of property rights.

Europe could surely learn from Iceland, but how widely could Iceland’s policies be copied? …The solution for Europe, and for other places, lies in a policy with Icelandic features: transferable quotas for all commercial species… Property rights are nearly always crucial in this. The tragedy of the sea is the tragedy of the commons, which is that anyone with access to a common resource has an interest in over-exploiting it because if he does not, someone else will. …Most fish…live fairly close to land, which is where they can, if the political determination exists, be assigned to the ownership of people with an interest in both exploiting and preserving them for a very long time, if not eternity. That this is so has been shown by Christopher Costello, an economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues, in a study of over 11,000 fisheries. In the 121 with ownership-share systems, he reported in Science last September, the rates of collapse were significantly lower than in the others.

Having “rates of collapse” suggests that the property rights-based systems don’t always work perfectly. But that fact that those rates are “significantly lower” also indicates that they are far more effective than communal fisheries in preserving fish stocks.

P.S. There’s a worrisome analogy between communal fisheries and the welfare state since both involve a tragedy of the commons. In the case of the welfare state, when too many people decide to rely on the “communal property” of government for their existence, this creates a “tipping point” because productive people at some point are either unable or unwilling to continue pulling the wagon.

P.P.S. This is a lesson that the Pilgrims learned very quickly.

P.P.P.S. Unfortunately, larger societies have a tendency to develop “goldfish governments.”

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This century has not been good news for economic liberty in the United States.

According to Economic Freedom of the World, America has dropped from being the 3rd-freest economy of the world in 2001 to the 12th-freest economy in the most recent rankings.

Perhaps more important, our aggregate score has fallen from 8.20 to 7.81 over the same period.

So why has the U.S. score dropped? Was it Bush’s spending binge? Obama’s stimulus boondoggle? All the spending and taxes in Obamacare? The fiscal cliff tax hike?

I certainly think all those policies were mistaken, but if you dig into the annual data, America’s score on “size of government” only fell from 7.1 to 7.0 between 2001 and 2012.

Which means economic freedom in the United States mostly declined for reasons other than fiscal policy. In other words, our score dropped because of what happened to our scores for trade policy, monetary policy, regulatory policy, and property rights and rule of law.

That triggered my curiosity. If America is #12 in the overall rankings, how would we rank if fiscal policy was removed from the equation?

Here are the results, showing the top 25 jurisdictions based on the four non-fiscal policy factors. As you can see, the United States drops from #12 to #24, which means we trail 14 European nations in these important measures of economic freedom.

If you look in the second column, you’ll notice how many of those European nations have double-digit increases when you look at their non-fiscal rankings compared to their overall rankings.

This is for two reasons.

First, their fiscal scores are terrible because of high tax rates and a stifling burden of government spending.

Second, these same nations are hyper-free market on issues such as trade, regulation, money, rule of law and property rights.

In other words, the data back up points I’ve made about policy in nations such as Denmark and Sweden.

In an ideal world, countries should have free markets and small government. In Northern Europe, they manage to get the first part right. Which is important since non-fiscal factors account for 80 percent of a nation’s overall grade.

Now let’s return to the issue of America’s decline.

Here are the non-fiscal rankings from 2001. As you can see, the United States was #5 at the time, scoring higher than even Singapore and Hong Kong. And the U.S. was behind only three European nations back in 2001.

For what it’s worth, America’s score has fallen primarily because of a significant drop in the trade category (from 8.7 to 7.7) and a huge drop for rule of law and property rights (from 8.7 to 7.0).

In other words, it’s not good for prosperity when a nation begins to have problems such as protectionism and politicized courts.

P.S. The erosion of America’s score for non-fiscal factors is particularly disappointing since improvements in those factors have played a big role in protecting the world from the negative economic consequences of more spending and taxes.

P.P.S. I think this is an example of correlation rather than causation, but the above rankings for non-fiscal economic liberty seem somewhat similar to the rankings I shared last week looking at overall societal freedom.

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I’m in Vancouver, Canada, for the biennial meeting of the World Taxpayers Associations.

I gave a speech on why tax competition is a valuable force to constrain the greed of the political class, but warned the audience that high-tax governments and international bureaucracies are using financial protectionism to coerce low-tax jurisdictions into weakening their good policies.

But regular readers know that I pontificate far too often on that topic, so today’s column is instead about a presentation by Michael Walker, who was the founding Executive Director at Canada’s Fraser Institute.

Michael’s great contribution to the world was the creation of the Economic Freedom of the World Index, which he developed working with scholars such as Milton Friedman.

I’ve cited the EFW Index many times, particularly to bemoan how America’s score has deteriorated during the Bush-Obama years.

Today, though, we’re going to look at global trends in economic freedom, using some of the slides from Michael’s presentation. And the good news, as you can see from the green line in this first chart, is that there was a significant increase in economic freedom between 1980 and 2010.

EFW Economic Freedom(1)

The blue line, by the way, shows how much nations differed. A higher blue line means more variation (in other words, some nations with very good scores and some with very bad scores), while a lower blue lines means that nations are converging.

To really understand what’s happening, however, it’s important to look at the component parts of the EFW Index. As I wrote back in 2012:

…a country’s economic performance is governed by a wide range of policies.

Indeed, the research suggests that there are five big factors that determine prosperity, and they’re all equally important.

Rule of law and property rights

Sound money

Fiscal policy

Trade policy

Regulatory policy

So let’s look at what’s been happening in each of these areas. Keep in mind, as we look at the following charts, that 10 is the best score.

We’ll start with fiscal policy. As you can see, policy was moving in the wrong direction from 1970 to 1985, then we got two decades of pro-growth changes, but now policy is again trending in the wrong direction.

EFW Size of Government

We’re still better off than we were 30 years ago, but I’m afraid scores will continue to decline because tax rates are now heading in the wrong direction and the burden of government spending is rising in many nations.

Now let’s look at the regulatory data. The trend may not be dramatic, but it is positive. The green line is gradually rising, showing that governments are easing red tape and reducing intervention.

EFW Regulation

Moreover, there’s no sign that policy is moving in the wrong direction, at least on a global basis.

Shifting to trade, we have perhaps the biggest success story in global economic policy. Between 1980 and 200, there was a dramatic increase in the freedom to trade.

EFW Free Trade

We also see some progress on monetary policy, both in that it stopped moving in the wrong direction in 1975 and then moved in the right direction beginning in 1995.

EFW Sound Money

Though I confess some skepticism about this measure. Central banks have created a lot of problems with excess liquidity, but they generally escape blame so long as easy-money policies don’t result in higher consumer prices.

This brings us to our final category. Property rights and the rule of law are very important for market economies, but unfortunately we’ve seen no long-run improvement in these key measures. Positive change between 1975 and 1995 is offset by movement in the wrong direction at other times.

EFW Rule of Law

Indeed, if we look at this next chart, which measures the distribution of scores for each category in 2010, you’ll see that nations get their lowest scores on rule of law and property rights.

EFW Five Factors

This aggregate data, while very useful, does not tell the entire story. If you look at various regions, you’ll discover that “first world” nations tend to get decent scores on rule of law and property rights while developing nations get poor scores.

Indeed, this is why the blue line in the rule of law/property rights chart is so much higher than it is for other categories. Simply stated, this is one area where there hasn’t been much convergence.

Which is a big reason why many developing nations are economic laggards, even if they get reasonably good scores in other categories.

Here’s a final chart that emphasizes that point. It shows nations that get the best scores on the size of government (left column), but then shows that many of them get very poor scores for rule of law and property rights (right column).

The fiscal burden of government is very low in nations such as Lebanon and Bangladesh, for instance, but these jurisdictions don’t attract a lot of investment or enjoy much growth because government fails to provide the right environment.

EFW Size of Government vs Rule of Law Challenge

All of which shows why Hong Kong, Singapore, and Switzerland deserve special praise. They have strong rule of law and property rights while simultaneously maintaining reasonable limits on the fiscal burden of the public sector. No wonder they are ranked first, second, and fourth in overall economic freedom.

And it’s worth noting that a few other nations deserve honorable mention for getting good fiscal policy scores while doing a decent job on the rule of law and property rights, specifically Bahamas (#39), Chile (#11), Mauritius (#6), and United Arab Emirates (#5).

By the way, the United States only got a 6.4 for size of government and a 7.1 for rule of law and property rights. No wonder America is only #17 in the overall rankings.

Back in 2000, when the United States ranked #3, we got a 7.0 for size of government and a 9.2 for rule of law and property rights.

So now you now know why I complain so much about Bush and Obama. And you especially know why I’m so concerned about the erosion of the rule of law under Obama.

P.S. A Spanish academic has developed some fascinating historical data on non-fiscal economic freedom, which is very helpful in understanding how the western world has managed to remain somewhat prosperous even though the fiscal burden of government increased dramatically in the 20th Century.

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Two years ago, I shared a video about the Environmental Protection Agency’s brutal and thuggish tactics against an Idaho family.

Constitution Limits Government PowerThat story had a very happy ending because the Supreme Court struck a blow for property rights and unanimously ruled against the EPA (too bad that similarly sound analysis was absent when the Justices decided the Kelo case).

Now we have a new example of the EPA running amok

Let’s look at a horrifying report about another family in the cross hairs of a rogue bureaucracy.

All Andy Johnson wanted to do was build a stock pond on his sprawling eight-acre Wyoming farm. He and his wife Katie spent hours constructing it, filling it with crystal-clear water, and bringing in brook and brown trout, ducks and geese. It was a place where his horses could drink and graze, and a private playground for his three children.

Sounds like the American dream, but also responsible stewardship since ponds usually have a positive role in limiting erosion.

Unfortunately, the EPA’s pinhead bureaucrats saw an opportunity for pointless and destructive intervention.

But instead of enjoying the fruits of his labor, the Wyoming welder says he was harangued by the federal government, stuck in what he calls a petty power play by the Environmental Protection Agency. He claims the agency is now threatening him with civil and criminal penalties – including the threat of a $75,000-a-day fine. …The government says he violated the Clean Water Act by building a dam on a creek without a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. Further, the EPA claims that material from his pond is being discharged into other waterways. Johnson says he built a stock pond — a man-made pond meant to attract wildlife — which is exempt from Clean Water Act regulations.  The property owner says he followed the state rules for a stock pond when he built it in 2012 and has an April 4-dated letter from the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office to prove it. …But the EPA isn’t backing down and argues they have final say over the issue. They also say Johnson needs to restore the land or face the fines.

As you can imagine, this was not exactly good news for the property owner.

Johnson says he was “bombarded by hopelessness” when he first received the administrative order from the EPA. …The EPA order on Jan. 30 gave Johnson 30 days to hire a consultant and have him or her assess the impact of the supposed unauthorized discharges. The report was also supposed to include a restoration proposal to be approved by the EPA as well as contain a schedule requiring all work be completed within 60 days of the plan’s approval. If Johnson doesn’t comply — and he hasn’t so far — he’s subject to $37,500 per day in civil penalties as well as another $37,500 per day in fines for statutory violations.

But kudos to Mr. Johnson. Unlike so many others, he’s not going to roll over and acquiesce to EPA brutishness.

Johnson plans to fight. “This goes a lot further than a pond,” he said. “It’s about a person’s rights. I have three little kids. I am not going to roll over and let [the government] tell me what I can do on my land. I followed the rules.”  …Johnson says his legal fight with the government agency is a teachable moment for his kids. “This is showing them that they shouldn’t back down,” Johnson said. “If you need to stand up and fight, you do it.”

Needless to say, the EPA is not the only out-of-control bureaucracy in Washington.

Let’s now read about the thuggish actions against blueberry growers by the Department of Labor.

Bureaucrats from that entity decided to launch a legal jihad against some growers and they relied on bad numbers and grotesque strategy.

Another example of big government run amok.

In late July 2012, officials from the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division visited Pan-American Berry Growers, B&G Ditchen and E&S Farms for spot inspections. …the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour division district director, Jeff Genkos, accused the growers of minimum-wage violations and declared the blueberries “hot goods” under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. This charge is usually reserved for, say, T-shirts sewn by child laborers. The effect was to stop the fruit from being shipped to customers. He then ordered the growers to pay back wages and penalties and asked them to sign away any right to appeal the deal.

What was most shocking about the DOL’s actions is that they engaged in Mafia-type tactics and “made an offer they couldn’t refuse.”

This put the growers in an impossible spot. Either they could collectively pay $240,435 or let millions of dollars’ worth of berries rot. And they only had a day or two to make a decision. They did what any prudent employer would do: They paid the money, and the hot goods order was lifted.

And you won’t be surprised that the bureaucracy cooked the numbers in the first place.

It turns out that Labor’s bureaucrats had divined that the average worker could only pick around 60 pounds of blueberries an hour, some 30 pounds below what workers usually pick. They then counted the number of workers employed and concluded the growers must have had workers employed off the books. …In January, Oregon magistrate judge Thomas M. Coffin ruled for the growers. “In essence, to avoid the potential loss of millions of dollars worth of berries, defendants had to agree to the DOL’s allegations without an opportunity to present a defense or confront the DOL’s evidence in an administrative or court hearing,” he wrote.

I’m glad at least one court has ruled against the Department of Labor. Let’s hope that the final result is positive when all the appeals have been exhausted.

Both of these stories belong in my collection of “Government Thuggery in Action.”

Previous examples include:

If you peruse those examples without getting angry at big government, you probably need a lengthy bit of soul-searching.

If you’re a normal person, you’ll want this t-shirt (and don’t be a perv, just the t-shirt!).

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