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Posts Tagged ‘Free Markets’

Having been inspired by Ronald Reagan’s libertarian-ish message (and track record), I’ve always been suspicious of alternative forms of conservatism for the simple reason that they always seem to mean bigger government.

To be fair, proponents of all these approaches always paid homage to the role of markets, so we’re not talking about Bernie Sanders-type nuttiness.

But I don’t want to travel in the wrong direction, even if only at 10 miles-per-hour rather than 90 miles-per-hour.

Now there’s a new alternative to Reaganism called “national conservatism.” It’s loosely defined, as you can see by reports from both left-leaning outlets (New York, New Republic) and right-leaning outlets (Townhall, Daily Signal).

There are parts of this new movement that are appealing, at least if I’m reading them correctly. Proponents are appropriately skeptical of global governance, though maybe not for the reasons that arouse my antipathy. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend in this battle.

They also don’t seem very fond of nation building, which also pleases me. And I also am somewhat sympathetic to their arguments about national unity – assuming it’s based on the proper definition of patriotism.

But their economic views, at best, are worrisome. And, as George Will opines, they’re sometimes awful.

…“national conservatives”…advocate unprecedented expansion of government to purge America of excessive respect for market forces and to affirm robust confidence in government as a social engineer allocating wealth and opportunity. …The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass advocates “industrial policy” — what other socialists call “economic planning”… He especially means subsidizing manufacturing..he admits that as government, i.e., politics, permeates the economy on manufacturing’s behalf, “regulatory capture,” other forms of corruption and “market distortions will emerge.” Emerge? Using government to create market distortions is national conservatism’s agenda. …Their agenda is much more ambitious than President Richard M. Nixon’s 1971 imposition of wage and price controls, which were temporary fiascos. Their agenda is even more ambitious than the New Deal’s cartelization of industries, which had the temporary (and unachieved) purpose of curing unemployment. What national conservatives propose is government fine-tuning the economy’s composition and making sure resources are “well” distributed, as the government (i.e., the political class) decides, forever. …Although the national conservatives’ anti-capitalism purports to be populist, it would further empower the administrative state’s faux aristocracy of administrators who would decide which communities and economic sectors should receive “well”-allocated resources. Furthermore, national conservatism is paternalistic populism. This might seem oxymoronic, but so did “Elizabeth Warren conservatives” until national conservatives emerged as such.

Since Nixon and FDR were two of America’s worst presidents, Will is drawing a very harsh comparison.

To give the other side, here are excerpts from a New York Times column by Oren Cass.

…a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy. Genuine prosperity depends upon people working as productive contributors to their society, through which they can achieve self-sufficiency, support their families, participate in their communities, and raise children prepared to do the same.

None of this sounds bad.

Heck, it sounds good. I’m in favor of strong families and strong communities.

But what does this rhetoric mean? Here’s where I start to worry.

Crucially, while a labor market left alone will seek an efficient equilibrium, economic theory never promises that the equilibrium will be a socially desirable, inclusive one. A genuine conservatism values markets as powerful mechanisms that foster choice, promote competition and deliver growth, but always in service to the larger end of a cohesive society in which people can thrive. …In some cases, …conservatives will head in new directions or even reverse course. …an insistence that workers throughout the labor market share in productivity growth……longstanding hostility toward organized labor will give way to an emphasis on reform. …new forms of organizing through which workers can support one another, engage with management and contribute to civil society should be a conservative priority.

And my worry turns to unfettered angst when I read some of the specific ideas that Cass mentions.

…a wage subsidy delivered directly into each low-wage paycheck…skepticism of unfettered international trade…legislation that would require the Federal Reserve to close the trade deficit by taxing foreign purchases of American assets.

To put it mildly, more redistribution, more protectionism, and taxes on investment is not a Reaganite agenda.

I’ll close with a political observation. Defenders of national conservatism have told me that the Reagan message is old and stale. It supposedly doesn’t apply to new problems in a new era.

Yet non-conservative Republicans lost twice to Obama while a hypothetical poll in 2013 showed Reagan would trounce Obama.

Some national conservatives point to Trump’s victory as an alternative, but I think that had more to do with Hillary Clinton. In any event, I very much doubt Trumpism is a long-term model for political success. Or economic success.

Maybe the real lesson is that good policy is good politics?

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For libertarians, there aren’t many good role models in the world. There are a few small jurisdictions such as Bermuda, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands that are worth highlighting because of strong rule of law and good fiscal policy. There are also a few medium-sized nations that are – by modern standards – very market-oriented, such as Switzerland, Singapore, and New Zealand.

But Hong Kong generally gets top rankings for economic liberty. Which helps to explain why I’m so worried about a potential crackdown by China.

As I noted in the interview, intervention by Chinese security would not be good news for Hong Kong.

But it also would be bad news for China’s economy. Especially since it already is dealing with the adverse consequences of both internal statism and external protectionism.

Indeed, the only reason I’m not totally pessimistic is that the power elite in China doubtlessly would experience a big loss in personal wealth if there is a crackdown.

That being said, I can’t imagine President Xi will allow China’s implicit control over Hong Kong to diminish. So I’m reluctant to make any prediction.

But I very much hope that Hong Kong will emerge unscathed, in part because I don’t want to lose a very good example of the link between economic liberty and national prosperity.

Marian Tupy, writing for CapX, explains that Hong Kong is a great role model.

In 1950, …compared to the advanced countries of the West, Hong Kong was still a relative backwater. …the average resident of the colony earned 35 per cent and 25 per cent compared to British and American citizens respectively. Today, average income in Hong Kong is 37 per cent and 3 per cent higher than that in the United Kingdom and America. …Unlike some British ex-colonies and the United Kingdom itself, Hong Kong never experimented with socialism. Historically, the government played only a minor role in the economy… The territory kept taxes flat and low… The territory followed a policy of unilateral trade liberalisation, which is to say that the colony allowed other countries to export to Hong Kong tariff-free, regardless of whether other countries reciprocated or not. …In 1755, the great Scottish economist Adam Smith…wrote, “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice…” Hong Kong prospered because it followed Smith’s recommendations.

Here’s his chart showing how Hong Kong has surpassed both the United Kingdom and United States in terms of per-capita economic output.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Jairaj Devadiga explains a key factor in Hong Kong’s success.

Sir John Cowperthwaite was Hong Kong’s financial secretary from 1961-71 and is widely credited for the prosperity Hong Kong enjoys today. An ardent free-marketeer, Cowperthwaite believed that government should not try to manage the economy. One salient feature of Cowperthwaite’s policies: His administration didn’t collect any economic data during his tenure. Not even gross domestic product was calculated. When the American economist Milton Friedman asked why, Cowperthwaite replied that once the data were made available, officials would invariably use them to make the case for government intervention in the economy. …Without data, busybody bureaucrats had no way of justifying interference in the economy. In Cowperthwaite’s Hong Kong, the government did only the bare minimum necessary, such as maintaining law and order… The rest was left to the private sector. …When asked what poor countries should do to emulate Hong Kong’s success, he replied, “They should abolish the office of national statistics.”

Amen.

When you give data to politicians and bureaucrats, they generally find something they don’t like and then can’t resist the temptation to intervene.

Now that we’ve looked at some of the factors that enabled Hong Kong’s prosperity, let’s consider what may happen if there’s a crackdown by China.

Professor Tyler Cowen shares a pessimistic assessment in his Bloomberg column.

Hong Kong has been a kind of bellwether for the state of freedom in the wider world. …By 1980, Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” series was on television, portraying Hong Kong as a free economy experiencing huge gains in living standards. The skyline was impressive, and you could get all the necessary permits to start a business in Hong Kong in just a few days. The territory showed how Friedman’s theories worked in the real world. Hong Kong stood as a symbol of a new age of freer markets and growing globalization. …Hong Kong still ranks near or at the top of several indices of economic freedom. But…[n]ot only is there the specter of Chinese intervention, but there is also a broader understanding that the rules of the game can change at any time… Meanwhile, many Hong Kong residents know their behavior is being monitored and graded, and they know the role of the Chinese government will only grow. …Freedom is not merely the ability to buy and sell goods at minimum regulation and a low tax rate, variables that are readily picked up by economic freedom indices. Freedom is also about the…legitimacy and durability of their political institutions. …Circa 2019, Hong Kong is a study in the creeping power and increasing sophistication of autocracy. While it is possible there could be a Tiananmen-like massacre in the streets of Hong Kong, it is more likely that its mainland overlords will opt for more subtle ways of choking off Hong Kong’s remaining autonomy and freedoms. …right now, I would bet on the Chinese Communist Party over the protesters.

If Cowen is right, one thing that surely will happen is that money will flee.

And that may already be happening. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

Private bankers are being flooded with inquiries from investors in Hong Kong…wealthy investors are setting up ways to move their money out of the former British colony more quickly, bankers and wealth managers said. A major Asian wealth manager said it has received a large flow of new money in Singapore from Hong Kong over recent weeks, requesting not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue. One Hong Kong private banker said the majority of the new queries he receives aren’t coming from the super-rich, most of whom already have alternative destinations for their money, but from individuals with assets in the $10 million to $20 million range. …The extradition fight reinforced concerns among Hong Kong investors and democracy advocates alike that the Beijing-backed government is eroding the legal wall separating the local judicial system from the mainland’s. …The recent demonstrations are the latest trigger in a long process of Chinese money flowing to Singapore, London, New York and other centers outside Beijing’s reach. …“Hong Kong has shot itself in the foot,” said Chong, a Malaysian who has permanent residency in both Hong Kong and Singapore. “Can you imagine Singapore allowing this?”

And keep in mind that big money is involved. Here’s a chart that accompanied the analysis.

Looking at these numbers, I want to emphasize again that China also will suffer if a crackdown causes money to flee Hong Kong.

Which is President Xi should resist the urge to intervene.

I’ll close with this visual depiction of Hong Kong’s amazing growth.

Let’s hope Beijing doesn’t try to reverse this progress.

P.S. You’ll notice that I didn’t advocate for democracy, either in this column or in the interview. That’s because I’m more concerned with protecting and promoting liberty. Yes, it’s good to have a democratic form of government. If I understand correctly, there’s also an empirical link between political freedom and economic freedom. But sometimes democracy simply means the ability to take other people’s money, using government as the middleman. That’s why the people of not-very-democratic Hong Kong are much better off than the people of democratic Greece.

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Back in 2014, I shared two videos – one narrated by Deirdre McCloskey and the other narrated by Don Boudreaux – explaining how the world went from near-universal poverty to mass prosperity (at least in the nations that embraced free markets and the rule of law).

Here’s a video with a similar theme, narrated by Dan Hannan, a British member of the European Parliament (hopefully not for long).

I like this video because it goes back 10,000 years to the invention of agriculture.

Hannan explains how this led to the creation of governments, basically acting as “stationary bandits.”

And for thousands of years, a tiny elite of kings and nobles basically acted as dictators while 99 percent of people endured horrid lives of slavery, oppression, poverty, and misery.

But then, as Hannan discusses (and also explained in the McCloskey and Bourdreaux videos), arbitrary power eventually was replaced by the rule of law and government control was replaced by economic liberty.

Not completely, of course, but to a sufficient degree that there was enough “breathing room” for a private economy to develop. And, in some cases, to flourish.

The result? Massive, amazing, and unthinkable prosperity for ordinary people.

Which gives me a good excuse to share this quote from Joseph Schumpeter, one of the economists from the Austrian School.

Yes, capitalism does wonderful things…assuming politicians don’t get too greedy and saddle us with “goldfish government.”

At times, I’m not overly optimistic. Given the growth of dependency, the expansion of government, and demographic decline, I fear there may be 22nd-century videos discussing how the United States reached a “tipping point” and went downhill.

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I’ve applauded China’s economic progress.

It’s economic liberty score jumped from 3.64 in 1980 to 6.46 in the most recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World.

That shift toward markets (which started in a village) helped to dramatically reduce poverty and turn China into a middle-income nation.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that most of China’s economic liberalization (from 3.64 to 6.15) occurred between 1980 and 2003.

Since that time, China’s score has improved at a glacial pace. Moreover, because other nations have been more aggressive about reducing the burden of government, China’s relative ranking has actually dropped (from #88 to #107) since 2003.

Which is why I’ve warned that China needs another burst of pro-market reform if it wants to become a rich country.

Regarding this issue, the Wall Street Journal has a very interesting report about how China is under-performing.

The country’s state-led growth model is running out of gas. A recession or crisis may not be imminent, but the long-run implications are just as serious. Absent a change in direction, China may never become rich. …First, official statistics probably paint too flattering a picture. Per-capita income may be a quarter lower than reported, based on a study of nighttime light co-authored by Yingyao Hu of Johns Hopkins University. …Second, it doesn’t measure up to the economies China seeks to emulate. Taiwan, South Korea and Japan all opened their economies to global trade and investment, enjoyed superfast growth for several decades… In fact, China seems to be slowing sooner than the others.

Why is China underperforming?

Too much statism. Simply stated, the government has too much control over the allocation of labor and capital.

For 30 years the Communist Party opened ever more of the economy to private enterprise, trade, foreign investment and market forces. Yet it never relinquished its commitment to socialism and Mr. Brandt says that since the mid-2000s the government has tightened control over sectors… An inefficient state sector matters less if the private sector grows fast enough. But in recent years, private firms in China have faced multiple headwinds. State-controlled banks prefer to lend to state-owned enterprises… The domestic private sector’s share of total sales has dropped about 5 percentage points since 2016, according to Goldman, while the state sector’s share has risen roughly as much.

By the way, many observers (from the American Enterprise Institute, Peterson Institute for International Economics, the New York Times, the New York Post, and Investor’s Business Daily) echo the concern about China becoming more statist in recent years.

I’ll make a more restrained point.

I’ll start by sharing this very interesting chart from the WSJ story. It shows how China’s growth, while impressive, has not been as rapid as the growth enjoyed by other Asian economies.

If you look below, you’ll see I’ve now augmented the chart to explain why China has under-performed.

On the right side, I’ve added the historical rankings from Economic Freedom of the World. As you can see (and just as theory and evidence teaches us), the other nations on the chart enjoyed more growth because they had more economic freedom.

These numbers reinforce my argument that China needs more pro-market reform. Though I should add the caveat that EFW has added more nations over time, so this comparison overstates the degree to which China is lagging.

But it is lagging. The bottom line is that China needs to copy Hong Kong and Singapore if it wants to become a rich nation. Or even Taiwan, which is an under-appreciated success story.

P.S. Keep in mind that China also faces demographic decline, which makes good policy even more necessary and important.

P.P.S. Amazingly, both the OECD and IMF are trying to sabotage China’s economy.

P.P.P.S. The WSJ story is an example of good reporting. If you want an example of bad reporting about China, check out this bizarre story from the New York Times.

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The candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination are competing to offer the most statist agenda, with Crazy Bernie, Elizabeth Sanders, and Kamala Harris being obvious examples.

But let’s not overlook Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He has a moderate demeanor, but he’s been advocating hard-left policies.

And he justifies his class-warfare agenda by arguing against Reaganomics and claiming that incomes have been stagnant since the 1980s.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, said the governing philosophy of Republicans such as former President Ronald Reagan, who signed across-the-board tax rate cuts to grow the economy, should not be repeated in the future. “What we’ve seen is that the rising tide rose, right? GDP went up. Growth went up. Productivity went up — big numbers went up and most of our boats didn’t budge. For 90 percent of Americans, you start the clock right around the time I’m born. Income didn’t move at all — so lower to middle income, really, almost all of us,” Buttigieg said.

Is this true? Have Americans been on a treadmill?

We can easily answer that question because I was at “FEEcon” this past weekend, an annual conference organized by the Foundation for Economic Education.

There were plenty of great presentations (including, I hope, my remarks on the economics of protectionism).

I was most impressed, however, by Professor Antony Davies, who gave some upbeat remarks about living standards.

Here’s one of his slides, which shows some headlines that echo the pessimistic view of Mayor Pete.

But do those headlines reflect reality?

If we look at cash wages since 1979, it seems that there hasn’t been much growth.

But cash is only part of total compensation.

Professor Davies showed that total compensation is up by a significantly greater amount.

By the way, I don’t think this is unalloyed good news.

A big reason for the difference between cash income and total compensation is that we have an exclusion in the tax code that encourages the over-provision of fringe benefits (which, in turn, contributes to the third-party payer problem).

But I don’t want to digress too much. The key point is that workers have seen healthy increases in compensation, notwithstanding the fact that I wish it was more in the form of wages.

Now let’s look at some more headlines from Davies’ presentation.

According to many news sources, the middle class is in trouble.

Is that true?

Professor Davies goes back to 1970 and (after adjusting for inflation) shows the distribution of households in America by income.

And then he shares the same data for every five-year period since 1970 to show that the middle class has shrunk.

But it shrank because a greater share of the population became rich.

Let’s close with two more slides, both of which look at 100 years of data.

This chart shows take-home pay for three types of workers.

And, more importantly, here’s a chart showing how much those three workers could buy based on hours of work.

As you can see, even a minimum-wage worker is much better off today than an average worker 100 years ago (with the exception of movie tickets).

Since we just looked at long-run data, let’s close today’s column with some short-run numbers.

In a column for the U.K.-based Guardian, Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute explains that capitalism currently is delivering some very positive results for ordinary people.

This is a strange time to be debating whether capitalism is broken, at least in the United States. The economy has added jobs every month since October 2010 for a total of over 20m net new payroll jobs. The unemployment rate is below 4%, lower than it has been since 1969. Wage growth is finally accelerating, clocking in at a rate well above 3% a year for typical workers. The workforce participation rate for people ages 25 to 54 has increased by 1.6 percentage points since 2015, wiping out half a decade of decline. There are more job openings than unemployed workers in the US. …So much for a stagnant economy. …Since 2016, weekly earnings for the bottom 10% of full-time workers have grown more than 50% faster than for workers at the median. The unemployment rate for adults without a high school degree is further below its long-term average than the rate for college-educated workers.

By the way, I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna with rose-colored glasses.

We have numerous bad policies that are hindering prosperity. If we reduced the size and scope of Washington, we could enjoy even greater levels of prosperity.

But we shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. The United States is one of the world’s most market-oriented nations.

This tweet nicely captures the choice we face in the real world. We have “almost capitalism,” which has made the U.S. a rich nation.

Some politicians, such as Mayor Pete and Crazy Bernie, would prefer to move the nation toward “almost socialism.”

They don’t intend (I hope!) to go too far in that direction, but incremental moves in the wrong direction will cause incremental weakening of American prosperity.

And they’re dead wrong on the issue of income growth.

P.S. Many of the Democrats say we should copy the statist policies of various European nations. I wish a journalist would ask them why we should copy the policies of nations that have lower living standards.

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I wrote yesterday about the debate among leftists, which is partly a contest between Bernie Sanders-style socialists and Elizabeth Warren-style corporatists.

Now let’s look at the debate on the right.

There’s an ongoing argument over what it means to be conservative, especially when thinking about the role of the federal government.

You can view this debate – if you peruse this “political compass test” – as being a battle over whether it is best for conservatism to be represented by Friedrich Hayek or Angela Merkel? By Donald Trump or Gary Johnson?

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a debate between whether the right believes in the principles of small-state classical liberalism or whether it thinks government should have the power to steer society.

Representing the latter view, here’s some of what Henry Olsen wrote for the Washington Post.

…libertarian-minded opinion leaders have criticized Trump… For these people, Trump was…an apostate whose heresies had to be cast out of the conservative church. Trump’s overwhelming victory in the primaries should have shocked them out of their ideological slumber. …the market fundamentalists seem to see nothing— absolutely nothing — about today’s capitalism to dislike. …National Review’s founder, William F. Buckley, famously wrote that…the federal government’s proper peacetime duties are solely to “protect its citizens’ lives, liberty, and property.” With respect to its efforts to do anything else, “we are, without reservation, on the libertarian side.” But that dog don’t hunt politically. ..libertarian-conservatives remain oblivious or intentionally in denial… The New Deal’s intellectual core, that the federal government should vigorously act to correct market failures, remains at the center of what Americans expect from Washington. Trump’s nomination and election proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that even a majority of Republicans agree. Less doctrinaire conservative thinkers understand this. Ramesh Ponnuru noted in his National Review essay that…capitalism “require[s] invigoration” as a result. The American Enterprise Institute’s Yuval Levin goes further, noting that “sometimes our economic policy has to be determined by more than purely economic considerations.” Other factors, such as social order and family formation, are also worthy goals to which pure economic efficiency or growth must bend at times. …this debate is fundamental to the future of conservatism and perhaps of the United States itself.

And here’s the beginning of a history-filled article by Joshua Tait in the National Interest.

When FOX television host Tucker Carlson recently attacked conservative faith in free market economics, he probably surprised a number of his viewers. For too long, Carlson charged, libertarians and social conservatives have ignored the fundamental part economic structures play in undermining communities. Families are crushed beneath market forces. Disposable goods—fueled by consumer culture—provide little salve for drug addiction and suicide. Markets are a “tool,” Carlson said, not a “religion.” “You’d have to be a fool to worship” them. Carlson put a primetime spin on an argument that has been brewing for some time on the right. Just as the 2008 economic collapse and the national prominence of Bernie Sanders have begun to shift the Democratic Party’s stance toward socialism, so the long effects of the downturn and Trump’s election have caused a rethinking of conservative commitment to free markets.

Last but not least, Jonah Goldberg examines a slice of this divide in a column for National Review.

The idea holding together the conservative movement since the 1960s was called “fusionism.” The concept…was that freedom and virtue were inextricably linked. …Today, conservative forces concerned with freedom and virtue are pulling apart. The catalyst is a sprawling coalition of self-described nationalists, Catholic integralists, protectionists, economic planners, and others who are increasingly rallying around something called “post-liberal” conservativism. By “liberal,” they…mean classical liberalism, the Enlightenment worldview held by the Founding Fathers. What the post-liberals want is hard to summarize beyond generalities. They seek a federal government that cares more about pursuing the “highest good” than protecting the “libertarian” (their word) system of individual rights and free markets. …On the other side are…conservatives who…still rally to the banner of classical liberalism and its philosophy of natural rights and equality under the law. …this intellectual mudfight really is…about what conservatism will mean after Trump is gone from the scene. …the so-called post-liberals now want Washington to dictate how we should all pursue happiness, just so long as it’s from the right. …Where the post-liberals have a point is that humans are happiest in communities, families and institutions of faith. The solution to the culture wars is to allow more freedom for these “little platoons” of civil society… What America needs is less talk of national unity — from the left or the right — and more freedom to let people live the way they want to live, not just as individuals, but as members of local communities. We don’t need to move past liberalism, we need to return to it.

For what it’s worth, I prefer Jonah’s analysis.

But I’ll also make three additional points.

First, if we care about maximizing freedom and prosperity, there’s no substitute for classical liberalism.

In my lifetime, there have been various alternatives to free markets. There was pre-Reagan Rockefeller Republicanism, post-Reagan “kinder and gentler,” George W. Bush’s so-called compassionate conservatism, reform conservatism, and now various strains of Trumpism and populism.

It may very well be true that some of these alternatives are more politically palatable (though I’m skeptical given the GOP’s unparalleled electoral success with an anti-big government message in 1980, 1994, 2010, and 2014).

But even if some alternatives are more popular, the associated policies will hurt people in the long run. That’s a point I made when arguing for supply-side tax cuts over family-friendly tax cuts.

In other words, you demonstrate compassion by giving people opportunity to prosper, not by giving them other people’s money.

Second, there’s nothing about classical liberalism or capitalism that suggests people should be selfish and atomistic.

Indeed, I pointed out, starting at the 3:36 point of this interview, that a libertarian society is what allows family, neighborhood, and community to flourish.

And, as Jonah explained, the “platoons” of “civil society” are more likely to thrive in an environment where the central government is constrained.

My third and final point is that I’m pessimistic.

The debate on the left is basically about how to make government bigger and how fast that process should occur.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a similar debate on the right, featuring different theories of how to shrink the size and scope of government.

Instead, the Reaganite-oriented classical liberals are the only ones who want America to become more like Hong Kong, while all the competing approaches basically envision government getting bigger, albeit at a slower rate than preferred by folks on the left.

In other words, we’re in a political environment where everyone on the left is debating how quickly to become Mexico and many people on the right are debating how quickly to become France.

No wonder I’ve identified an escape option if America goes down the wrong path.

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I’m in Sydney, Australia, but not because I’m confirming that this country will be my escape option if (when?) the United States suffers a Greek-style fiscal collapse.

Instead, I’m Down Under for the annual Friedman Conference.

This gives me an excuse to write about Australia, especially since national elections just took place this past weekend. Interestingly, the incumbent, right-of-center government retained power in an upset, winning 77 or 78 seats (out of a possible 151).

Here’s the breakdown.

The folks at Slate lean to the left, so their article is understandably riddled with anguish.

Australia’s dysfunctional, unpopular, conservative government…held onto power for a third term in Saturday’s national election. This happened despite the fact that most analysts expected it to lose a large number of seats; despite being (seemingly) out of step with the nation’s emerging consensus on climate change.. A Labor Party win had been anticipated for three years, with the opposition winning every single poll of the last term. …Expected swings against the coalition in several regions of the country didn’t materialize, while there was a crucial 4 percent swing against Labor in the state of Queensland (alternately described as Australia’s Alabama or Florida). …Progressive Australians are—to understate things—“hurting,”…(only they’re threatening to move to New Zealand instead of Canada). …Labor’s environmental stance, while not actually all that bold, hurt it in coal-friendly Queensland and among voters worried about the costs of acting on climate change… Progressive Australians are reeling because any lingering illusions that we were a “fair” nation have been shattered. Whatever Labor’s political shortcomings, Australians in general voted against a detailed platform that aimed to seriously address climate change, raise wages, increase cancer funding, make child care free or significantly cheaper, close tax loopholes for corporations and the wealthy, fund the arts, fund the underfunded public broadcaster… Instead, they voted for … not much of anything (other than some tax cuts).

Since I’m a wonk, I’m much more interested in the policy implications rather than the political machinations.

The good news is that Labor’s defeat means Australia will be spared some costly tax increases and some expensive green intervention.

But it’s unclear whether there will be many pro-growth reforms.

The right-of-center Liberal-National Coalition has promised some tax relief, but I don’t know if it will be supply-side rate reductions or merely the distribution of favors using the tax code.

For what it’s worth, Australia needs to lower its top tax rate on households, which is nearly 50 percent. European-type tax rates are always a bad idea, and they are especially senseless for a country that has to compete with Hong Kong and Singapore.

It would also be nice if the newly reelected government chooses to fix some of the housing policies that have made Australian cities very unfriendly to families.

Joel Kotkin explains why this is a problem in an article for City Journal.

Few places on earth are better suited for middle-class prosperity than Australia. From early in its history, …the vast, resource-rich country has provided an ideal environment for upward mobility… Over the last decade, though, Australia’s luck has changed… Despite being highly dependent on resource sales to China—largely coal, gas, oil, and iron ore—Australia has embraced green domestic politics more associated with Manhattan liberals or Silicon Valley oligarchs than the prototypical unpretentious Aussie… Historically, the Australian Labor Party, like its counterpart in Britain, was a party of the working class. …These views seem almost quaint today, particularly for a Labor Party increasingly dominated by those operating outside the tangible economy, as part of the professional class—media, finance, public service—and concentrated in the largely family-free urban cores. …Australia’s commitment to renewable energy dwarfs that of even the most committed green-leaning countries. Per capita, Australia has installed roughly five times as many renewable-energy installations as the E.U., the U.S., or China, and even two-and-a-half times more than climate-obsessed Germany. …The most pernicious assault on Australia’s middle class comes from regulation of land and expenditures to promote urban density. …In Australia, only 0.3 percent of the country is urban. As in major cities in Great Britain, Australia, the U.S., and Canada, “smart growth” has helped turn Australia’s once-affordable cities into some of the world’s costliest. …Sydney’s planning regulations, according to a Reserve Bank study, add 55 percent to the price of a home. In Perth, Melbourne, and Brisbane, the impact exceeds $100,000 per house. Australian cities once filled with family-friendly neighborhoods are becoming dominated by dense apartments. …Today, many Australians face an uncharacteristically bleak future. Urged to settle where the planners and pundits prefer, they’re stuck in places both unaffordable and inhospitable, as part of a needless governmental drive to make life there more like that of the more congested, socially riven metropoles of Britain.

For all intents and purposes, I want Australian lawmakers to rekindle their reformist zeal.

If you look at the historical data from Economic Freedom of the World, you can see that Australia enjoyed a big jump in economic liberty between 1975-2000.

Basically climbing from 6 to 8 on a 0-10 scale.

Sadly, there hasn’t been much reform this century. That being said, Australia’s era of liberalization last century is still paying dividends. The country is routinely ranked in the top-10 for economic liberty.

Interestingly, many of the changes between 1975-2000 happened when the Labor Party was led by reformers such as Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Mr. Hawke, incidentally, just passed away. His obituary in the New York Times acknowledges that he liberalized the economy.

Bob Hawke, Australia’s hugely popular prime minister from 1983 to 1991, who presided over wrenching changes that integrated his nation into the global economy…, died on Thursday… Rising to power as a trade union leader, Mr. Hawke led his center-left Australian Labor Party to four consecutive election victories in a tenure of nearly nine years, in which Australia emerged dramatically from relative isolation… Confronting chronic strikes, soaring inflation, high unemployment and trade deficits, Mr. Hawke revolutionized the economy. He cut protective tariffs, privatized state-owned industries…reined in powerful unions… “We are now living in a tough, new competitive world in which we have got to make it on our own merits,” Mr. Hawke told The New York Times in 1985.

I’m irked, though, that the article doesn’t mention that Hawke (in power from 1983-91) began Australia’s system of personal retirement accounts.

That excellent reform, which was expanded by the Keating government (in power from 1991-96), is paying big dividends to Australia.

Indeed, let’s wrap up today’s column with some excerpts from a laudatory article in the Economist.

The last time Australia suffered a recession, the Soviet Union still existed and the worldwide web did not. …No other rich country has ever managed to grow so steadily for so long. …Public debt amounts to just 41% of GDP—one of the lowest levels in the rich world. That, in turn, is a function not just of Australia’s enviable record in terms of growth, but also of a history of shrewd policymaking. Nearly 30 years ago, the government of the day overhauled the pension system. Since then workers have been obliged to save for their retirement through private investment funds.

It’s noteworthy that the system of personal accounts, known as superannuation, manages to attract praise from unlikely quarters.

And it is one of the reasons for the country’s success. Here’s an accompanying chart showing that Australia has enjoyed more growth, higher wages, and less debt than other major nations.

Is Australian policy perfect? Of course not.

But does the data from Australia show that better policy leads to better results? Definitely.

P.S. The Aussies also reaped big benefits by unilaterally reducing trade barriers (it would be nice if a certain person residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue learned from that experience).

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