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According to leftists like Bernie Sanders, European nations have wonderfully generous welfare states financed by high tax rates on the rich.

They’re partly right. There are very large welfare states in Europe (though I wouldn’t use “wonderfully” and “generous” to describe systems that have caused economic stagnation and high levels of unemployment).

But they’re wrong about how those welfare states are financed. Yes, tax rates on the rich are onerous, but not that much higher than in the United States. Instead, the big difference between America and Europe is that ordinary people pay much higher taxes on the other side of the Atlantic.

Indeed, I’ve previously cited Tax Foundation data showing that the United States arguably has the most “progressive” tax system in the developed world. Not because we tax the rich more, but simply because we impose comparatively modest burdens on everyone else.

And now we have some new evidence making the same point. Joseph Sternberg of the Wall Street Journal has some very sobering data on how the German tax system imposes a heavy weight on poor and middle-income taxpayers.

Europeans believe their tax codes are highly progressive, giving lower earners a break while levying significant proportions of the income of higher earners and corporations to fund generous social benefits. But that progressivity holds true only for direct taxes on personal and corporate income. Indirect taxes, such as the value-added tax on consumption and social-security taxes (disguised as “contributions”), are a different matter. The VAT disproportionately affects lower earners, who spend a higher proportion of their incomes. And social taxes tend to kick in at lower income levels than income taxes, and extract a higher and more uniform proportion of income. …if you look at the proportion of gross household income paid in all forms of tax, the rate varies by only 25 points. The lowest-earning 5% of households pay roughly 27% of their income in various taxes—mainly VAT—while a household in the 85th income percentile pays total taxes of around 52%, mostly in social-security taxes that amount to nearly double the income-tax bill.

Here’s a chart the WSJ included with the editorial.

As you can see, high payroll taxes and the value-added tax are a very costly combination.

And the rest of Europe is similar to Germany.

…Germany is not unique. The way German total revenues are split among income taxes, social taxes and the consumption tax is in line with the rest of Western Europe, as are its tax rates, according to OECD data. If other countries are more progressive than Germany, it’s only because Germany applies its second-highest marginal income-tax rate of 42% at a lower level of income than most.

Speaking of the OECD, here’s the bureaucracy’s data on the burden of government spending.

Germany is in the middle of the pack, with the public sector consuming 44 percent of economic output (Finland edges out France and Greece for the dubious honor of having the most expensive government).

The overall burden of the public sector is far too high in the United States, but we’re actually on the “low” side by OECD standards.

According to the data, total government spending “only” consumes 37.7 percent of America’s GDP. Only Ireland, Switzerland, and Latvia have better numbers (though my friend Constantin Gurdgiev explains we should be cautious about Irish economic data).

But I’m digressing. The point I want to emphasize is that punitive taxes on poor and middle-income taxpayers are unavoidable once politicians decide to impose a large welfare state.

Which is why I’m so inflexibly hostile to any tax increase, especially a value-added tax (or anything close to a VAT, such as the BAT) that would vacuum up huge amounts of money from the general population. Simply stated, politicians in Washington will have a hard time financing a bigger burden of government if they can only target the rich.

Sternberg makes the same point in his column.

Tax cuts have emerged as an issue ahead of Germany’s national election next month, with both major parties promising various timid tinkers… Not gonna happen. The VAT and social taxes are too important to the modern welfare state. The great lie is that there are a) enough “rich people,” b) who are rich enough, that c) taxing their incomes heavily enough can pay for generous health benefits and an old-age pension at 65. None of those propositions are true, and the third is especially wrong in an era of globally mobile capital and labor. That leaves the lower and middle classes, and taxes concealed in price tags or dolled up as “insurance contributions” to obscure exactly how much voters are paying for the privilege of their welfare states. …reform of the indirect taxes that impose such a drag on European economies awaits a more serious discussion about the proper role of the state overall.

Exactly.

There’s no feasible way to ease the burden on ordinary German taxpayers (or regular people in other European nations) unless there are sweeping reforms to reduce the welfare state.

And the moral of the story for Americans is that we better enact genuine entitlement reform if we don’t want to suffer the same fate.

P.S. If you don’t like German data, for whatever reason, I wrote last year about Belgium and made the same point about how a big welfare state necessarily means a bad tax system.

P.P.S. By the way, even the OECD admitted that European nations would grow faster if the burden of government was reduced.

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I periodically share data showing that living standards are higher in the United States than in Europe.

My goal isn’t to be jingoistic. Instead, I’m warning readers that we won’t be as prosperous if we copy out tax-and-spend friends on the other side of the Atlantic (just like I try to draw certain conclusions when showing how many low-tax jurisdictions have higher levels of economic output than the United States).

I’m sometimes asked, though, how America can be doing better than Europe when we have more poverty.

And when I ask them why they thinks that’s the case, they will point to sources such as this study from the German-based Institute of Labor Economics. Here’s some attention-grabbing data from the report.

The United States has the highest poverty rate both overall and among households with an employed person, but it stands farther away from the other countries on its in-work poverty rate than its overall poverty rate. The contrast between the US and three other English-speaking countries — Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom — is particularly striking. Compared to those three nations, the United States has an overall poverty rate only a little higher but an in-work poverty rate that is much higher.

And here’s the main chart from the study, with the United States as the bottom. It appears that there twice as much poverty in the USA as there is in a stagnant economy like France.

There even appears to be more poverty in America than there is in Spain and Italy, both of which are so economically shaky that they required bailouts during the recent fiscal/financial crisis.

Sounds horrible, right?

Yes, it does sound really bad. However, it’s total nonsense. Because what you read in the excerpt and see in the graph has nothing to do with poverty.

Instead, it’s a measure of income distribution.

And, if you read carefully, the study actually admits there’s a bait-and-switch.

The…approach to measuring poverty is a “relative” one, with the poverty line set at 60 or 50 percent of the median income.

Think about what this means. A country where everyone is impoverished will have zero or close-to-zero poverty because everyone is at the median income. But as I’ve explained before, a very wealthy society can have lots of “poverty” if some people are a lot richer than others.

And since the United States is much richer than other nations, this means an American household with $35,000 of income can be poor, even though they wouldn’t count as poor if they earned that much elsewhere.

This is like grading on a rigged curve. And if you read the fine print of the IZA study, you’ll see that the “poverty” threshold for a four-person household magically jumps by $16,260.

For a household of four (two adults, two children) the difference between the official US threshold and the 60-percent-of-median threshold amounts to more than $16,000 ($24,000 versus $40,260). This means that the size of the working poor population in America according to the official poverty measure is significantly lower than the size obtained in studies using a relative threshold.

In other words, you can calculate a much higher poverty rate if you include people who aren’t poor.

By the way, since the IZA report acknowledges this bait-and-switch approach, I guess one would have to say that the study technically is honest.

But it’s still misleading because most people aren’t going to read the fine print. Instead, they’ll see the main chart showing higher “poverty” and assume that there is a much higher percentage of actual poor people in the United States.

Moreover, some people may understand that there’s a bait-and-switch and simply want to help fool additional people.

And I’m guessing that this is exactly what the authors and the IZA staff expected and wanted. And if that’s the case, then the study is deliberately misleading, even if not technically dishonest.

I’ll close by stating that I don’t mind if folks on the left want to argue that market-based societies are somehow unfair because some people are richer than others. And it’s also fine for them to argue that we should be willing sacrifice some of our national prosperity to achieve more after-the-fact equality of income.

But I’d like for them to be upfront about their agenda and not hide behind dodgy data manipulation.

P.S.When you do apples-to-apples comparisons of the United States with the best-performing economies of Europe, you find that the poor tend to be at the same level, but every other group is better off in America.

P.P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that both the Obama Administration and the leftists at the OECD prefer the “relative” definition of poverty.

P.P.P.S. The problem with our statist friends, as Margaret Thatcher explained, is that some of them are so upset about inequality that they’re willing to make everyone poorer if that’s what it takes to reduce income differences.

P.P.P.P.S. Indeed, this “Swiftian” column about reducing inequality is satire, but one wonders whether statists would actually accept such an outcome.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Data from China demonstrates why our attention should be on poverty reduction rather than inequality.

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Defenders of civil liberties have won big victories against gun control in the United States.

The fight certainly isn’t over, to be sure, but most Americans have some degree of freedom to own guns, carry guns, and protect themselves with guns.

By contrast, the situation in Europe tends to be grim. Many nations strictly limit the freedom of people to keep and bear arms. As you might expect, the “sensible Swiss” are an exception, and nations such as Monaco, Austria, and the Nordics are semi-reasonable.

But it’s just about impossible to own a gun in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy. Even groups that are targeted by Islamic fanatics, such as Jews, aren’t allowed to defend themselves.

And that is good news for terrorists. They can plot murder and mayhem with considerable confidence that they won’t meet armed resistance until police show up (just as mass killers in the USA seek out gun-free zones for their evil attacks).

But that passive approach may be changing in some European nations.

According to a column in the Washington Post, the President of the Czech Republic believes an armed citizenry is a safe citizenry.

A couple of months ago, Czech President Milos Zeman made an unusual request: He urged citizens to arm themselves against a possible “super-Holocaust” carried out by Muslim terrorists.

The column notes that he’s almost certainly over-stating the risks.

…there are fewer than 4,000 Muslims in this country of 10 million people.

But some citizens decided it’s better to be safe than sorry.

…gun purchases spiked.

Now the government is seeking to make it easier for citizens to use those guns for self-defense.

…the country’s interior ministry is pushing a constitutional change that would let citizens use guns against terrorists. Proponents say this could save lives if an attack occurs and police are delayed or unable to make their way to the scene. …Parliament must approve the proposal.

The good news is that the Czech Republic already has fairly good laws. At least by European standards.

The Czech Republic already has some of the most lenient gun policies in Europe. It’s home to about 800,000 registered firearms and 300,000 people with gun licenses. Obtaining a weapon is relatively easy: Residents must be 21, pass a gun knowledge check and have no criminal record. By law, Czechs can use their weapons to protect their property or when in danger, although they need to prove they faced a real threat.

Hopefully there are lots of unregistered firearms as well.

Though I’m unsure what the Interior Ministry is proposing with regards to gun use against terrorists. Why would the law need to be changed if Czechs already are allowed to use weapons for self-defense?

In any event, the bad news is that the meddling bureaucrats in Brussels are trying to make it more difficult for law-abiding people to protect themselves.

…much of Europe…has long supported much more stringent gun-control measures.  In the wake of the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, France pushed the European Union to enact even tougher policies. The European Commission’s initial proposal called for a complete ban on the sale of weapons like Kalashnikovs or AR-15s that are intended primarily for military use. Ammunition magazines would be limited to 20 rounds or less. …the EU passed a compromise last month… The final measure bans the sale of most military-style rifles and requires all potential buyers to go through a psychological check before they can buy a weapon. …it’s not yet clear if gun owners will have to turn in newly illegal weapons.

How typical of the French. They want to make it more difficult for law-abiding people to have guns, an approach that presumably won’t have much – if any – impact on terrorists who presumably can get weapons illegally.

And the EU once again ignores its own federalist rhetoric on subsidiarity to push for statist continent-wide policy.

Moreover, Kalashnikovs and AR-15s are no more dangerous or deadly than other rifles, so targeting guns that “are intended primarily for military use” is irrelevant nonsense.

The bottom line is that more gun control in Europe won’t help the fight against terrorism. Instead, it simply means citizens don’t have the right to defend themselves.

So I’m glad the Czechs are trying to do the right thing, in spite of the paternalistic left-wing ideologues elsewhere in Europe. And I hope there will be lots of civil disobedience as more gun control policies emanate from Brussels.

P.S. If you enjoy sarcasm, here’s a clever video showing how leftists think about gun control. And here’s another one.

P.P.S. If you enjoy when leftists accidentally make the argument against gun control, you’ll enjoy the exploding cigars by Trevor Noah and the New York Times.

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I like the main components of the Trump tax plan, particularly the sweeping reduction in the corporate tax rate.

But, as I say at the beginning of this Fox Business interview, there’s a big difference between proposing a good idea and actually getting legislation approved.

But just because I’m pessimistic, that doesn’t change the fact that a lower tax burden would be good for the country.

Toward the end of the interview, I explained that the most important reason for better tax policy is not necessarily to lower taxes for families, but rather to get more prosperity.

If we can restore the kind of growth we achieved when we had more market-friendly policy in the 1980s and 1990s, that would be hugely beneficial for ordinary people.

That’s the main economic argument for Trump’s plan.

But now I’ve come across what I’ll call the emotionally gratifying argument for Trump’s tax cuts. The Bureau of National Affairs is reporting that European socialists are whining that a lower corporate tax rate in the United States will cause “a race to the bottom.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s plans to slash corporate taxes by more than half will accelerate a “race to the bottom” and undermine global efforts to combat corporate tax evasion by multinationals, according to a second political group in the European Parliament. The Socialists and Democrats, made up of 190 European Parliament lawmakers, insisted the Trump tax reform, announced April 26, threatens the current work in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Group of Twenty to establish a fair and efficient tax system.

As you might expect, the socialists make some nonsensical arguments.

Paul Tang—who heads the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and leads the European Parliament negotiations on the pending EU Common Corporate Tax Base (CCTB) proposal—accused the Trump administration of pursuing a “beggar-they-neighbor policy similar to those in the 1930s.”

Huh?!? Does Mr. Tang think there were tax cuts in the 1930s?

That was a decade of tax increases, at least in the United States!

Or is he somehow trying to equate tax cuts with protectionism? But that makes zero sense. Yes, protectionism was rampant that decade, but higher tariffs mean higher taxes on trade. That’s the opposite of tax cuts.

Mr Tang is either economically illiterate or historically illiterate. Heck, he’s a socialist, so probably both.

Meanwhile, another European parliamentarian complained that the U.S. would become more of a tax haven if Trump’s tax cut was enacted.

Sven Giegold, a European Green Party member and leading tax expert in the European Parliament, told Bloomberg BNA in a April 27 telephone interview that the Trump tax plan further cemented the U.S. as a tax haven. He added the German government must put the issue on the agenda during its current term as holder of the G-20 presidency. …The European Green Party insists the U.S. has become an international tax haven because, among other things, it has not committed to implement the OECD Common Reporting Standard and various U.S. states, including Delaware, Nevada and South Dakota, have laws that allow companies to hide beneficial owners.

He’s right and wrong.

Yes, the United States is a tax haven, but only for foreigners who passively invest in the American economy (we generally don’t tax interest and capital gains received by foreigners, and we also generally don’t share information about the indirect investments of foreigners with their home governments).

Corporate income, however, is the result of direct investment, and that income is subject to tax by the IRS.

But I suppose it’s asking too much to expect politicians to understand such nuances.

For what it’s worth, I assume Mr. Giegold is simply unhappy that a lower corporate tax rate would make America more attractive for jobs and investment.

Moreover, he presumably understands adoption of Trump’s plan would put pressure on European nations to lower their corporate tax rates. Which is exactly what happened after the U.S. dropped its corporate tax rate back in the 1980s.

Which is yet another example of why tax competition is something that should be celebrated rather than persecuted. It forces politicians to adopt better policy even when they don’t want to.

That is what gets them angry. And I find their angst very gratifying.

P.S. You may have noticed at the very end of the interview that I couldn’t resist interjecting a plea to reduce the burden of government spending. That’s not merely a throwaway line. When the Congressional Budget Office released its fiscal forecast earlier this year, I crunched the numbers and showed that we could balance the budget within 10 years and lower the tax burden by $3 trillion (on a static basis!) if politicians simply restrained spending so that it grew 1.96 percent per year.

P.P.S. It’s worth remembering that the “race to the bottom” is actually a race to better policy and more growth. And politicians should be comforted by the fact that this doesn’t necessarily mean less revenue.

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I wrote yesterday about the most recent OECD numbers on “Average Individual Consumption” in member nations.

There was a very clear lesson in that data about the dangers of excessive government. The United States was at the top in this measure of household living standards, not because American policies are great, but rather because huge welfare states in Europe have undermined economic vitality on the other side of the Atlantic.

Indeed, the only countries even remotely close to the United States were oil-rich Norway and the two tax havens of Switzerland and Luxembourg.

Those AIC numbers gave us an interesting snapshot of relative living standards in 2014.

But what would we discover if we looked at how that data has changed over time?

It appears that the OECD began assembling that data back in 2002. Here’s a table showing how nations rose or fell, relative to other OECD nations, since then. Based on convergence theory, one would expect to see that poorer nations enjoyed the biggest relative gains, while richer nations fell in the rankings. And that is what generally happened, but with some notable exceptions.

Here are the countries that did not conform, for either good reasons or bad reasons, to convergence theory.

We’ll start with the nations that have bragging rights.

  • Chile started at the very bottom compared to the rich nations of the western world, so anything other than a large increase would have been a disappointment. But the magnitude of Chile’s increase is nonetheless quite impressive and presumably a testament to pro-market reforms.
  • Finland was almost 7 points below the OECD average in 2002 and now is more than 2 points above the average, which is a significant jump for a nation near the middle of the pack. Maybe having sensible leaders is a good idea.
  • Oil-rich Norway was above average at the start of the period and even farther above average at the end of the period.
  • The United States was very high in 2002 and remained very high in 2014. Since that outcome violates convergence theory, that’s a non-trivial accomplishment and another piece of evidence that big governments in Europe are imposing a harsh economic cost.
  • Switzerland also started high and remained high. That’s presumably a reflection of good policies such as federalism and spending restraint.

Now for the nations that did not fare well.

  • Luxembourg suffered a large drop, some of which is understandable since the tiny tax haven was in first place back in 2002. But the magnitude of the decline – particularly compared to the United States and Switzerland – is not an encouraging sign. This may be a sign that anti-tax competition efforts by the OECD have hit the nation hard.
  • Greece, Spain, Ireland, and Italy all tumbled in the rankings even though – at best – they started in the middle of the pack. It will be interesting to see how these nations perform as they recover (or don’t recover, as I expect in the cases of Italy and Greece) from the European fiscal crisis.
  • Slovenia also went from bad to worse, which perhaps is not a big surprise since it is one of the least reform-oriented countries to emerge from the Soviet Bloc.
  • The United Kingdom suffered a rather large decline, almost all of which happened under the profligate Blair and Brown Labour governments. This will be another nation that will be interesting to watch in coming years, particularly because of Brexit.
  • France and the Netherlands also suffered, starting well above average in 2002 but falling to the mean in 2014.

If you like this kind of data on whether nations are trending in the right direction or wrong direction, I’ve also tinkered with the data from Economic Freedom of the World.

Last year, I highlighted countries that have made significant moves in the EFW rankings, including oft-overlooked success stories such as Israel and New Zealand.

I also looked specifically at changes in Europe this century and did not find any reason for optimism.

The bottom line is that there’s no substitute for free markets and limited government. If nations want faster growth and more prosperity, they need to mimic jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

Unfortunately, there’s very little reason to be optimistic about that happening in Europe.

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One of the more surreal aspects of the 2016 campaign was watching Bernie Sanders argue that the United States should become more like a European welfare state.

Was he not aware that Europe had major problems such as high unemployment and a fiscal crisis?

Didn’t he know that America’s economy was growing faster (which is a damning indictment since growth in the U.S. was relatively anemic during the Obama years)?

Perhaps more important, didn’t he know that Americans enjoy much higher living standards than their European counterparts? Was he not aware that European nations, if they were part of America, would be considered poor states?

If you don’t believe me, here’s a chart I prepared using the “average individual consumption” data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. These are the numbers that measure the material well-being of households. As you can see, the United States is far ahead of other nations. Indeed, the only three countries that are even close are two admirable tax havens and oil-rich Norway.

What about Denmark and Sweden, the two nations that Bernie Sanders said were role models? Well, the United States could copy them, but only if we wanted our living standards to drop by more than 30 percent.

By the way, since the OECD is a left-leaning bureaucracy that is guilty of periodically rigging numbers against the United States, you can be confident that this AIC data isn’t structured to favor America.

So why does the United States have such a big advantage?

In a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, Professor Martin Feldstein addresses why Europe is lagging the United States.

Although the official statistics imply that the rate of growth of real GDP in the United States has declined in recent years, it has still been substantially higher than the real growth rates in Europe and the other industrial countries. The sustained higher rate of real GDP growth in the United States over a longer period of time has resulted in a substantially higher level of real GDP per capita in the United States than in other major industrial countries.

He lists 10 reasons for the growth gap. Here are the ones that are related to public policy, followed by my brief observations.

(4) Labor markets that generally link workers and jobs unimpeded by large trade unions, state-owned enterprises, or excessively restrictive labor regulations. In the private sector, less than seven percent of the labor force is unionized. There are virtually no state-owned enterprises. While labor laws and regulations affect working conditions and hiring rules, they are much less onerous than in Europe.

Given America’s high ranking in the World Bank’s Doing Business, this makes sense.

(6) A culture and a tax-transfer system that encourages hard work and long hours. The average employee in the United States works 1800 hours per year, substantially longer than the 1500 hours worked in France and the 1400 hours worked in Germany.

The U.S. subsidizes leisure, but not nearly as bad as Europe (think of Lazy Robert).

(7) A supply of energy that makes North America energy independent. The private ownership of land and mineral rights has facilitated a rapid development of fracking to expand the supply of oil and gas.

Apparently the United States is one of the few nations where you own minerals under your land. Good for us.

(8) A favorable regulatory environment. Although the system of government regulations needs improvement, it is less burdensome on businesses than the regulations imposed by European countries and the European Union.

Given the data from Economic Freedom of the World, I’m not sure I believe this.

(9) A smaller size of government than in other industrial countries. According to the OECD, outlays of the U.S. government at the federal, state and local levels totaled 38 percent of GDP while the corresponding figure was 44 percent in Germany, 51 percent in Italy and 57 percent in France. The higher level of government spending in other countries implies that not only is a higher share of income taken in taxes but also that there are higher transfer payments that reduce incentives to work. In the United States, …There is no value added tax. State income taxes vary but are generally about five percent… So Americans have a higher pre-tax reward to working and can keep a larger share of their earnings.

A smaller burden of government spending may be America’s biggest advantage. And that’s connected with our other big advantage, which is not being burdened by a government-fueling value-added tax.

(10) The U.S. has a decentralized political system in which states compete. The competition among states encourages entrepreneurship and work effort and the legal systems protect the rights of property owners and entrepreneurs. The United States political system assigns many legal rules and taxing power to the fifty individual states. The states then compete for businesses and for individual residents by their legal rules and tax regimes. Some states have no income taxes and have labor laws that limit unionization.

We still have some federalism, and that helps.

Overall, Feldstein’s list is impressive, though it fails to note that there are areas where Europe has better policy, such as lower corporate tax rates, lower death taxes, private postal services, and private infrastructure. There are even European nations with school choice and private retirement accounts.

Notwithstanding these attractive features, Feldstein is right about more economic liberty in the United States. And that helps to explain higher living standards in America.

What makes this especially noteworthy is that convergence theory says that poorer nations should automatically catch up to richer nations. Yet Europe’s catch-up period came to halt in the 1980s and the continent has since been losing ground.

And for fans of apples-to-apples comparisons, it’s very illuminating that Americans of Scandinavian descent earn about 40 percent more than those who didn’t emigrate and still live in Scandinavia.

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It appears that Venezuela is on the brink of collapse as it enters the fourth circle of statist hell.

And the death of Cuba’s long-time dictator gives hope that the people of that island nation may soon escape communist tyranny.

Moreover, one certainly hopes that the lunatic leadership of North Korea’s brutal regime won’t last forever.

Let’s cross our fingers that these evil governments will soon lose power. But that’s only the first step. We also need to think about the policies that would enable these nations to undo the damage of pervasive socialism.

We can learn some lessons by looking at the experience of post-communist nations in Eastern Europe, which is a topic I addressed in the latest edition of The Conservative, which is the quarterly magazine published by the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformers in Europe.

I started the article with some broad observations about grim political and economic impact of communism.

Communism was an awful system for people trapped behind the Iron Curtain. The political cost was enormous. Personal rights and individual liberties were sacrificed to protect the power of the state. Human rights were abused, dissidents were imprisoned, and some were even killed. Communism also imposed huge economic costs. Collectivized agriculture, central planning, price controls, and government-run industries were among the policies that resulted in a debilitating misallocation of resources. And because labor and capital were poorly utilized, living standards lagged far behind western nations.

That was the bad news.

The good news is that the Soviet Empire collapsed, the Berlin Wall was dismantled, and democratic forms of government are now the norm in Eastern Europe.

But good news isn’t perfect news. Nations that emerged from the Soviet Bloc are still economic laggards. And if you dig into the latest version of Economic Freedom of the World, a big problem is that post-communist nations have not been very successful in defending property rights and implementing the rule of law.

Establishing genuine capitalism, though, has been a bigger challenge. Part of the problem is policy. And to be more specific, data from the Fraser’s Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World shows that the major difference today between Western Europe and Eastern Europe (nations that were part of the Soviet Bloc) is that the former get much better scores for “Legal System and Property Rights.” Indeed, the average ranking of Western European nations is 20.6 (with 1 being the best) while the average ranking of Eastern European countries is 67.1 (Economic Freedom of the World ranks 159 jurisdictions).

Here’s a graph comparing Western European nations with Eastern European nations.

As you can see, this is an area where Western Europe leads the world. Nordic nations tend to be at the very top of the rankings (thus helping to offset bad fiscal policy in those countries), and other countries in the region also are highly ranked (though a few countries in the region, such as Italy and Greece, don’t get good scores).

Eastern European countries, by contrast, don’t do well. There’s a significant gap when looking at average scores. Indeed, only Estonia ranks in the top 25.

And bad scores in this category are akin to putting a house on a foundation of sand. Other policies may create a house that looks very nice, but it probably won’t last very long on the unstable foundation.

And speaking of other policies, post-communist nations have better fiscal policy than the countries from Western Europe. Or, to be more accurate, they have less-worse fiscal policy.

If you examine the overall ratings for “Size of Government,” Eastern European nations actually are ranked significantly better, with an average ranking of 89.2 compared to 129.2 for Western European countries. This is because tax rates tend to be lower (many former Soviet Bloc nations have flat tax regimes, for instance) and welfare states aren’t as burdensome.

As I already hinted, doing “significantly better” on fiscal policy than Western Europe does not mean Eastern Europe has good fiscal policy.

Indeed, an average ranking of 89 means that most Eastern European nations are in the bottom half of the world.

So while it’s good that some Eastern European nations have flat taxes, that’s not an economic elixir if there are very high payroll taxes, stifling value-added taxes, and onerous energy taxes.

And since the burden of government spending is extremely onerous in Western Europe, it’s hardly an impressive achievement that Eastern Europe ranks slightly higher.

Though there’s one aspect of fiscal policy where the post-communist countries are lagging their neighbors to the west.

…if you dig into the details and examine the various components that determine “Size of Government,” there’s one area where Eastern Europe lags. The numbers for “Government Enterprises and Investment” are better in Western Europe. …In other words, politicians play too large a role in the allocation of capital in former communist nations.

To put that message in blunter terms, there’s too much cronyism in Eastern Europe.

So long as politicians can directly (state-owned enterprises) or indirectly (handouts, subsidies, and bailouts) provide favors and tilt the playing field, the enriching forces of private markets will be stunted.

Which is why I shared this conclusion in my article.

The bottom line is that post-communist nations need to choose genuine capitalism if they want a brighter future for their citizens.

If you want to close with some good news, I did point out in the article that there are some bright spots in the region, especially Estonia, though Poland also has made big progress.

P.S. Courtesy of Reddit‘s libertarian page, here’s an amusing cartoon strip.

It doesn’t quite meet the requirement for getting added to my “Government in Cartoons” page, but it definitely could be part of this collection of anti-politician jokes.

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