Posts Tagged ‘Free Markets’

Libertarians are sometimes described as people who don’t want the government to interfere in either the bedroom or boardroom, which is a shorthand way of saying that there should be both personal freedom and economic freedom.

Based on this preference for liberty and a desire to avoid government coercion, what’s the most libertarian nation in the world? Is it Australia, which I recommended as the best option for escaping Americans if the U.S. becomes a failed welfare state?

Not quite. According to the new Human Freedom Index, Australia gets a very good score, but the most libertarian-oriented place in the world isn’t even a country. It’s Hong Kong, a “special administrative region” of China.

Hong Kong earns its high score thank to it’s number-one status for economic freedom, combined with a top-20 score for personal freedom.

For what it’s worth, European nations dominate the rankings. Other than top-rated Hong Kong, New Zealand (#3), Canada (tied for #6), and Australia (tied for #6), every single nation in the top 20 is from the other side of the Atlantic.

So kudos to our friends from across the ocean. Most of them have big welfare states, but at least they compensate with free market policy in other areas, along with lots of personal freedom.

And what about the United States? We’re ranked #23, which certainly is decent considering that there are 159 countries that are scored, but obviously not worthy of superlatives.

The infographic below contains the specific scores for the United States. As you can see, our economic freedom score (7.75 out of 10) is worse – in absolute terms – than our personal freedom score (8.79 out of 10). But since more nations (especially in Europe) get high scores for personal freedom, our relative ranking for economic freedom (16 our of 159) is better than our relative ranking for personal freedom (28 our of 159).

And if we look at the sub-categories for personal freedom on the left side, you’ll notice that America’s main problem is a very mediocre score for rule of law. Thanks, Obama!

Let’s now look at the nations that have the most personal freedom.

I already mentioned that the United States is in 28th place, so we obviously don’t show up on this top-20 list. But you will find 17 European nations, along with Australia (tied for #12), Canada (#15), and Hong Kong (tied for #19).

By the way, Switzerland is the only nation to be in the top 10 for both personal and economic freedom. So maybe that country’s improbable success isn’t so improbable after all. You do the right thing and you get good results.

And honorable mention to Ireland, Australia, and the United Kingdom for just missing being in the top 10 in both categories.

In case you’re wondering why Hong Kong had the highest overall score even though it was “only” #19 for personal freedom, the answer is that the jurisdiction scores so much higher for economic liberty than the European nations.

P.S. For what it’s worth, I find it surprising that China, which ranks rather low for overall freedom (141 out of 159), is so tolerant of widespread freedom in Hong Kong. I assume (hope?) this is a positive sign that China will evolve in a positive direction.

P.P.S. The very last country on the list is Libya, so perhaps we can conclude that the Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama intervention has not produced good results. Meanwhile, I’m guessing that the thugs in Caracas (154 out of 159) are happy that Venezuela isn’t in last place.

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I’m in Sweden today, where I just spoke before Timbro (a prominent classical liberal think tank) about the US elections and the implications for public policy.

My main message was pessimism since neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton support genuine entitlement reform.

But I’ve addressed that topic many times before. Today, motivated by my trip, I want to augment my analysis about Sweden from 10 days ago.

In that column, I highlighted some research from Professor Olle Kranz showing that Sweden became a rich nation during a free-market era when government was relatively small. And as you can see from his chart (I added the parts in red), this is also when per-capita economic output in Sweden caught up with – and eventually surpassed – per-capita GDP in other advanced countries.

Then Sweden began to lose ground. Some of this was understandable and inevitable. Sweden didn’t participate in World War II, so its comparative prosperity during the war and immediately afterwards was a one-time blip.

But the main focus of my column from last week was to show that Swedish prosperity began a sustained drop during the 1960s, and I argued that the nation lost ground precisely because statist policies were adopted.

In other words, Sweden enjoyed above-average growth when it relied on policies I like and then suffered below-average growth when it imposed the policies (high tax rates, massive redistribution, etc) that get Bernie Sanders excited.

Today, let’s build upon Professor Kranz’s analysis by extending his calculations. He did his research in the early part of last decade, and we now have many years of additional data that can be added to the chart.

But before doing that, it’s worth noting that the years of additional data basically coincide with a period of market-oriented reforms in Sweden. A study from the Reform Institute in Stockholm explains some of what happened, starting with the stagnation caused by the era of big government.

The seventies and eighties saw Sweden’s tax burden rise from an average European level to the world’s highest. The public sector expanded vastly. All facets of the welfare system were made more generous in international comparison. Meanwhile, labour market regulation increased… Throughout these years, Swedes’ individual after-tax real income stagnated, private sector job creation ceased, and public debt spiralled higher. This culminated in a severe economic crisis in the early 1990s. By then, Sweden had fallen to 14th place in the GDP per capita rankings of OECD countries.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that this economic misery led to market-oriented reforms.

When the onset of the financial crisis coincided with election of a market-oriented centre-right government in 1991, the reform process began in earnest. Most emphasis at the time was placed on reforms that opened significant sectors in the economy to greater competition. Moreover, an important feature of these regulatory reforms was that the crisis spurred local authorities to implement less burdensome regulation. …significant changes were introduced to the tax system, macroeconomic policy framework, and social insurance system. …every aspect of the Swedish economy has changed due to implementation of reforms. …public sector employment has declined.

To be sure, none of the means Sweden became Hong Kong. It is currently ranked only #38 by Economic Freedom of the World, and its score only improved from 6.92 in 1990 to 7.46 today, hardly a huge jump.

But we nonetheless can now check whether this period of modest reform yielded any dividends. And, looking at an updated and extended version of Professor Kranz’s chart, there certainly seems to be a clear relationship between pro-market policy and Swedish prosperity.

Call me crazy, but it seems like there’s a lesson here about the right recipe for growth.

P.S. The 16 countries in the comparison are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

P.P.S. If you’re so disposed, you can watch my speech in Stockholm on Timbro’s Facebook page. If you prefer YouTube, the folks at CEPOS in Denmark saw the same speech (I only oppose wasteful forms of recycling) and they posted it yesterday.

P.P.P.S. If you’re interested in more information about market-oriented reforms in Sweden, check out Lotta Moberg’s video and Johan Norberg’s video.

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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.

Paul Keating – Another non-libertarian, this former Australian Prime Minister gets a nod because of the big role he played in creating his nation’s private social security system.

So if Gary Johnson is asked again about foreign leaders he admires, I hope this column will be a useful cheat sheet.

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When writing a few days ago about the newly updated numbers from Economic Freedom of the World, I mentioned in passing that New Zealand deserves praise “for big reforms in the right direction.”

And when I say big reforms, this isn’t exaggeration or puffery.

Back in 1975, New Zealand’s score from EFW was only 5.60. To put that in perspective, Greece’s score today is 6.93 and France is at 7.30. In other words, New Zealand was a statist basket cast 40 years ago, with a degree of economic liberty akin to where Ethiopia is today and below the scores we now see in economically unfree nations such as Ukraine and Pakistan.

But then policy began to move in the right direction, especially between 1985 and 1995, the country became a Mecca for market-oriented reforms. The net result is that New Zealand’s score dramatically improved and it is now comfortably ensconced in the top-5 for economic freedom, usually trailing only Hong Kong and Singapore.

To appreciate what’s happened in New Zealand, let’s look at excerpts from a 2004 speech by Maurice McTigue, who served in the New Zealand parliament and held several ministerial positions.

He starts with a description of the dire situation that existed prior to the big wave of reform.

New Zealand’s per capita income in the period prior to the late 1950s was right around number three in the world, behind the United States and Canada. But by 1984, its per capita income had sunk to 27th in the world, alongside Portugal and Turkey. Not only that, but our unemployment rate was 11.6 percent, we’d had 23 successive years of deficits (sometimes ranging as high as 40 percent of GDP), our debt had grown to 65 percent of GDP, and our credit ratings were continually being downgraded. Government spending was a full 44 percent of GDP, investment capital was exiting in huge quantities, and government controls and micromanagement were pervasive at every level of the economy. We had foreign exchange controls that meant I couldn’t buy a subscription to The Economist magazine without the permission of the Minister of Finance. I couldn’t buy shares in a foreign company without surrendering my citizenship. There were price controls on all goods and services, on all shops and on all service industries. There were wage controls and wage freezes. I couldn’t pay my employees more—or pay them bonuses—if I wanted to. There were import controls on the goods that I could bring into the country. There were massive levels of subsidies on industries in order to keep them viable. Young people were leaving in droves.

Maurice then discusses the various market-oriented reforms that took place, including spending restraint.

What’s especially impressive is that New Zealand dramatically shrank government bureaucracies.

When we started this process with the Department of Transportation, it had 5,600 employees. When we finished, it had 53. When we started with the Forest Service, it had 17,000 employees. When we finished, it had 17. When we applied it to the Ministry of Works, it had 28,000 employees. I used to be Minister of Works, and ended up being the only employee. …if you say to me, “But you killed all those jobs!”—well, that’s just not true. The government stopped employing people in those jobs, but the need for the jobs didn’t disappear. I visited some of the forestry workers some months after they’d lost their government jobs, and they were quite happy. They told me that they were now earning about three times what they used to earn—on top of which, they were surprised to learn that they could do about 60 percent more than they used to!

And there was lots of privatization.

…we sold off telecommunications, airlines, irrigation schemes, computing services, government printing offices, insurance companies, banks, securities, mortgages, railways, bus services, hotels, shipping lines, agricultural advisory services, etc. In the main, when we sold those things off, their productivity went up and the cost of their services went down, translating into major gains for the economy. Furthermore, we decided that other agencies should be run as profit-making and tax-paying enterprises by government. For instance, the air traffic control system was made into a stand-alone company, given instructions that it had to make an acceptable rate of return and pay taxes, and told that it couldn’t get any investment capital from its owner (the government). We did that with about 35 agencies. Together, these used to cost us about one billion dollars per year; now they produced about one billion dollars per year in revenues and taxes.

Equally impressive, New Zealand got rid of all farm subsidies…and got excellent results.

…as we took government support away from industry, it was widely predicted that there would be a massive exodus of people. But that didn’t happen. To give you one example, we lost only about three-quarters of one percent of the farming enterprises—and these were people who shouldn’t have been farming in the first place. In addition, some predicted a major move towards corporate as opposed to family farming. But we’ve seen exactly the reverse. Corporate farming moved out and family farming expanded.

Maurice also has a great segment on education reform, which included school choice.

But since I’m a fiscal policy wonk, I want to highlight this excerpt on the tax reforms.

We lowered the high income tax rate from 66 to 33 percent, and set that flat rate for high-income earners. In addition, we brought the low end down from 38 to 19 percent, which became the flat rate for low-income earners. We then set a consumption tax rate of 10 percent and eliminated all other taxes—capital gains taxes, property taxes, etc. We carefully designed this system to produce exactly the same revenue as we were getting before and presented it to the public as a zero sum game. But what actually happened was that we received 20 percent more revenue than before. Why? We hadn’t allowed for the increase in voluntary compliance.

And I assume revenue also climbed because of Laffer Curve-type economic feedback. When more people hold jobs and earn higher incomes, the government gets a slice of that additional income.

Let’s wrap this up with a look at what New Zealand has done to constrain the burden of government spending. If you review my table of Golden Rule success stories, you’ll see that the nation got great results with a five-year spending freeze in the early 1990s. Government shrank substantially as a share of GDP.

Then, for many years, the spending burden was relatively stable as a share of economic output, before then climbing when the recession hit at the end of last decade.

But look at what’s happened since then. The New Zealand government has imposed genuine spending restraint, with outlays climbing by an average of 1.88 percent annually according to IMF data. And because that complies with my Golden Rule (meaning that government spending is growing slower than the private sector), the net result according to OECD data is that the burden of government spending is shrinking relative to the size of the economy’s productive sector.

P.S. For what it’s worth, the OECD and IMF use different methodologies when calculating the size of government in New Zealand (the IMF says the overall burden of spending is much smaller, closer to 30 percent of GDP). But regardless of which set of numbers is used, the trend line is still positive.

P.P.S. Speaking of statistical quirks, some readers have noticed that there are two sets of data in Economic Freedom of the World, so there are slightly different country scores when looking at chain-weighted data. There’s a boring methodological reason for this, but it doesn’t have any measurable impact when looking at trends for individual nations such as New Zealand.

P.P.P.S. Since the Kiwis in New Zealand are big rugby rivals with their cousins in Australia, one hopes New Zealand’s high score for economic freedom (3rd place) will motivate the Aussies (10th place) to engage in another wave of reform. Australia has some good polices, such as a private Social Security system, but it would become much more competitive if it lowered its punitive top income tax rate (nearly 50 percent!).

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When Economic Freedom of the World is released every September, it’s like an early Christmas present. This comprehensive yearly publication is a great summary of whether nations have policies that allow people economic liberty.

I eagerly peruse this annual survey every year (here’s what I wrote in 2015 and 2014 if you’re curious about a couple of recent examples). And this year is no different.

Let’s start with the table that gets the most attention. Here’s a look at the top nations, led (as is almost always the case) by Hong Kong and Singapore. Switzerland also deserves some recognition since it has always been in the top 5.

The United States used to be a regular member of the top-5 club, but we have fallen to 16th in the rankings.

Which is just barely ahead of the supposedly socialist countries of Finland and Denmark (which actually are very market-oriented nations in every area other than fiscal policy).

I don’t show the nations in the bottom half of the rankings, but I assume nobody will be surprised to learn that Venezuela is in last place (though, to be fair, the communist hellholes of North Korea and Cuba aren’t in the rankings because of inadequate data).

One of the other great features of Economic Freedom of the World is that you can look not just how nations rank today, but also how the have changed over time.

I selected some nations of interest from Exhibit 1.4 in Chapter 1. Keep in mind, as you review this data, that you’re seeing scores every fifth year from 1970-2005 and then the annual scores beginning in 2005.

A few observations on these numbers.

  • Chile’s improvement has been dramatic, even though the nation has slipped a bit since 2007.
  • Australia’s jump from 1975-today also is remarkable, as is China’s improvement since it entered the rankings in 1980.
  • Hong Kong has been consistently superb, though it’s troubling that its score has weakened slightly since 2008. Singapore also has a modest trend in the wrong direction.
  • I didn’t know Israel was so bad back in 1980, or that New Zealand scored so low back in 1975, so kudos to both nations for big reforms in the right direction.
  • I tend to give Estonia a lot of love, all of which is deserved, but it’s worth noting that its Baltic neighbors of Latvia and Lithuania also are big success stories.
  • Speaking of overlooked success stories, Peru’s upward climb deserves a lot of praise.
  • Switzerland isn’t overlooked (at least by me), but the praise it gets is very well deserved since it manages to be sensible while all its neighbors make mistakes.
  • Last but not least, scores for the United States and Venezuela have both been falling, though thankfully we started much higher and have fallen at a much slower rate.

Now let’s take a closer look at America. The good news is that we’re in the top 20 for economic freedom. The bad news is that we used to be in the top 5.

I’ve been grousing for years that the Bush-Obama policies have eroded America’s competitiveness and undermined economic liberty.

This year, EFW has a special chapter on the United States and it confirms my analysis. Here’s a chart from that chapter showing how America’s score has declined in recent years.

And if you want some additional details, America’s score is declining first and foremost because the rule of law is eroding and property rights are less secure.

Which is a point I made last year, but EFW‘s chart is much better than my homemade version.

You can also see that protectionism has increased since 2000. And one shudders to think what will happen in this area over the next few years given the protectionist utterances of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (though I hope Hillary is lying and trade is an issue where she’s actually on the right side).

Heck, I’m worried about the next four years for reasons that go well beyond trade. I hope I’m wrong, but it seems that America faces a choice of a statist Tweedledee or a statist Tweedledum.

It’s almost as if the two major-party candidates have read the recipe for growth and prosperity and have decided to use it as a road map of what not to do. Sigh.

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I’m in Shenyang, China, as part of the faculty for Northeastern University’s International Economics and Management program.

My primary role is to talk about the economics of fiscal policy, explaining the impact of both taxes and spending.

But regular readers already know my views on those issues, so let’s look instead at the vaunted Chinese Miracle.

And I don’t use “vaunted” in a sarcastic sense. Ever since China began to liberalize its economy in the late 1970s, economic growth has been very impressive. I don’t necessarily believe the statistics coming from the Chinese government, but it’s unquestionably true that there’s been spectacular progress.

The great mystery, though, is whether China will continue to enjoy rapid growth. In other words, will it actually converge with the United States (right now per-capita economic output in America is more than five times higher than it is in China)? Or will China, like many other developing/transition economies, hit a ceiling and then begin to stagnate.

I don’t pretend to know the future, but I can say with great confidence that the answer depends on the actions of the Chinese government.

The good news is that economic freedom jumped dramatically starting in 1980 according to Economic Freedom of the World. Thanks to good reforms, China’s score rose by more than 50 percent, climbing from 4.0 in 1980 to more than 6.0 in just a bit over two decades.

That’s a huge improvement, and it largely explains why prosperity has expanded and there’s been a record reduction in the grinding poverty and material deprivation that characterized the country.

But the bad news is that there hasn’t been much reform in the past 15 years. China’s economic freedom score has oscillated between 6.0 and 6.4 during that period.

Indeed, there have been financial bailouts and Keynesian-style “stimulus” schemes, so it’s possible that China is now going in the wrong direction.

Before digging into the details, let’s consider the economics of growth. I’ve written before that labor and capital are the two factors of production and that economic growth is a function of more labor, more capital, or learning to use existing labor and/or capital more productively.

One way to visualize this is with a production possibility curve. This is a tool in economics that often is used to illustrate tradeoffs and opportunity costs. If Robinson Crusoe is on a deserted island, what the best way for him to allocate his time to maximize the amount of fish he can catch and the number of coconuts he can collect? Or, for an entire society, what’s the “guns-vs-butter” tradeoff?

Here’s a chart I found online that illustrates the role of capital and labor and producing output. It’s a three-dimensional chart, which is helpful since it not only shows that there’s no output in the absence of capital and labor, but it also shows that an economy with just labor or just capital also won’t have much if any output. You produce a lot, by contrast, with labor and capital are mixed together.

But that’s just the beginning.

The above chart shows the amount of output that theoretically can be produced with given amounts of labor and capital. But what if there’s bad policy in a nation? Consider the difference, for example, between China’s plateaued economic freedom score and decent economic performance compared to Hong Kong’s great economic freedom score and great economic performance.

With that in mind, contemplate this two-dimensional image. With bad policy, either the economy only produces A when it can produce B (i.e., by using existing labor and capital more productively) or it produces B when it can produce C (i.e., by expanding the amount of labor and capital).

I suspect that China’s problem is mostly that bad policy interferes with the efficient allocation of labor and capital. In other words, there’s already a lot of labor and capital being deployed, but a significant amount is misallocated because of cronyism and other forms of intervention.

Now let’s move from theory to empirical details.

Here’s a close look at China’s reforms from Professor Li Yang, Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Over the past 35 years, China has achieved extraordinary economic performance thanks to the market-oriented reforms and opening-up….The GDP per capita also reached to $6075 in 2012, up from $205 in 1980… China’s economy experiences impressive changes in favor of marketization. In fact, as far back as 1996, 81% of the production materials, and 93% of retail sales, had already been traded according to the market pricing mechanism.

And here’s a chart showing the gradual expansion of market forces in China, presumably based on whether prices are determined by markets or by central planning.

We also have two charts showing the decline in genuine socialism (i.e., government ownership of the means of production).

The first chart shows that state-owned companies are becoming an ever-smaller share of the economy.

Even more impressive, there’s been a huge decline in the share of the population employed by state-owned firms.

This is good news, and it helps to explain why China is much richer today than it was 30 years ago.

But the great unknown is whether China will experience similar strong growth for the next 30 years.

Here’s more of Professor Yang’s optimistic analysis.

Another indispensable factor explaining China’s growth miracle is constant opening-up, which is equally guided by the principle of gradualism. Regarding the space structure, the markets successively opened up from the special economic zones, economic and technological development zones, coastal economic development zones, riparian regions, inland regions, and finally the whole China; regarding the industrial structure, from the advantaged manufacturing industry, to the less advantaged agriculture and service industries. In 2001, China’s entry into the WTO can be regarded as a milestone: China’s opening up transformed from selective policy measures to widespread and deep institutional arrangements.

The liberalization of trade is particularly impressive, as shown by the following chart from the study.

Makes me wonder what Donald Trump would adjust his protectionist China-bashing if he saw (and understood) this chart.

Anyhow, here are some passages from Professor Yang’s conclusion.

…market-oriented reforms constitute the most crucial factor to support China’s growth in the future. The key here is to properly deal with the relationship between government and markets. The latter will be expected to play the fundamental role in the allocation of economic resources. …China should make more effort to improve the efficiency of investment. …the government needs to reduce its intervention in the micro-level economic activities, promote deregulation and administrative decentralization, break up monopolies, and improve the efficiency of functioning.

I agree, particularly the part about boosting the efficiency of investment.

And that can only happen if China ends cronyism by letting capital be allocated by market forces rather than political connections.

Let’s close with two items.

First, one of the other faculty with me at the University in Shenyang is Ken Schoolland. In his presentation, he noted that there’s some real federalism in China. Provinces have considerable flexibility to engage in reform.

And it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the rapid growth in China has been concentrated in the areas that have moved the fastest and farthest in the direction of free markets.

Second, some experienced observers are a bit pessimistic about future Chinese economic developments. Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute explains what needs to happen to boost future prosperity.

…the economy is in the process of stagnating. The only solution is a return to market-driven, politically difficult reform. Such reform must be focused primarily on rolling back the state sector. …Expanded individual or household land ownership in rural areas would be…helpful. …More individual land rights shrink the rural state. The critical step in revitalizing the economy is to shrink the urban state, and by a considerable amount. Such changes will of course be phased in over time but the sooner they start, the sooner economic performance improves. Shrinking the urban state sector would (i) finally address excess capacity; (ii) enable capital to be much more efficiently allocated; (iii) thereby slow or halt unproductive debt accumulation; and (iv)encourage innovation by enabling more competition. …In terms of capital allocation, formal interest rate liberalization was said to be a vital step. But it cannot be while the state controls most financial assets – the incentives for collusion among sister state financials are overwhelming.

Here’s Derek’s bottom line.

Want to know when China is going to thrive again – just check if the state sector is actually shrinking.


What he’s basically describing are the policies that would dramatically improve China’s score from Economic Freedom of the World. And if China can ever climb as high as Hong Kong, then the sky’s the limit for growth and prosperity.

P.S. There are some signs that China’s leadership recognizes that a Reagan-style agenda is needed.

P.P.S. On the other hand, if China’s government takes the IMF’s advice, then prepare for economic decline and stagnation.

P.P.P.S. The most amusing economic news in recent years was when a senior Chinese official basically explained that the welfare state in Europe makes people lazy.

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Over the years, I’ve repeatedly tied to explain why socialism is a terrible system while also explaining that we should be careful not to label people as socialists if it’s more accurate to refer to them as statists, redistributionists, cronyists, or fascists.

To help illuminate this issue, here’s a four-quadrant matrix. Free markets are on the left and state planning is on the right. And small government is on the top with redistribution is on the bottom.

So it’s a very good idea to be in the top-left quadrant, hopefully close to the corner, sort of like Hong Kong and Singapore. And it’s a big mistake to be in the bottom-right quadrant, sort of like Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela.

Notice, by the way, that Denmark and Sweden are more free market than the United States (i.e., further to the left), but with much more redistribution (i.e., closer to the bottom). Which is exactly what you see when you look at the underlying data from Economic Freedom of the World.

Let’s augment our four quadrants by adding a couple of historical examples, which are colored red.

In the top left quadrant, we have the United States in the late 1800s, which is when we had a public sector that was significantly smaller than what Hong Kong has today. Heck, nations such as France and Sweden also had very small governments in the 1800s, which is when the western world became rich.

I also added the National Socialists from 1930s Germany. Their fascist economic system retained the veneer of private ownership, but state planning was the dominant economic model.

Moreover, it would be very illuminating to have a three-dimensional matrix in order to capture the difference between cronyism/interventionism and socialism/state planning.

Both involve government officials exercising power over the allocation of resources, of course, but cronyism/interventionism tends to be ad hoc and morally corrupt while socialism/state planning tends to be systemic and intellectually corrupt.

Though if a government engages in enough cronyism/interventionism (think Venezuela), the net result looks a lot like socialism/state planning (think North Korea).

Or maybe we should have a four-dimensional matrix so we also can distinguish between systems with nominal private property (such as fascism) and ones where the government owns the “factors of production” (such as socialism and communism).

The unfortunate reality is that there are several strains of statism, all of which are bad.

By the way, one of Hillary Clinton’s advisors, Gene Sperling, was recently asked about the difference between a socialist and a Democrat and was accused of dodging the question just like Hillary (and, I would add, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz).

“I’m not here to do general definitions,” replied Gene Sperling, a Hillary Clinton economic adviser, when asked by MSNBC: ‘What is the difference between a socialist and a Democrat?’ MSNBC’s Chris Matthews stumped Hillary Clinton with the same question several months ago.

Though, if you watch the interview, I think Gene actually gets close to the truth. He said Hillary was a “progressive” (which presumably means lots of redistribution), but nonetheless supports the market economy (as opposed to state planning).

To be sure, there are many examples of Hillary wanting to engage in interventionism, so Sperling may be right about socialism but wrong about Mrs. Clinton.

Let’s close with a video on socialism from Dennis Prager, though it applies equally to redistributionism (or any system where people can use the coercive power of government to obtain unearned goodies).

One of the most insightful parts of the video was when Dennis pointed out that excessive government weakens character. Which is just another way of pointing out that statism erodes social capital.

And I fear he’s right that regaining and restoring character is not that easy. Once people have decided that it’s morally acceptable to use the power of government to take what other people have produced, restoring an ethical society is probably like putting toothpaste back in a tube.

Which explains why I am so miserably pessimistic about the future of places such as Greece.

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