Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Free Markets’

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.

Read Full Post »

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).

Read Full Post »

Just last month, I wrote about Argentina’s grim economic outlook and criticized the supposed right-of-center President, Mauricio Macri, for failing to deliver any meaningful economic liberalization.

And reform is desperately needed.

According to Economic Freedom of the World, Argentina is one of the most statist nations on the planet (the only nations that do worse are Libya and Venezuela).

For all intents and purposes, Argentina is suffering from decades of bad policy.

Argentina is a sobering example of how statist policies can turn a rich nation into a poor nation. …After World War II, Argentina was one of the world’s 10-richest nations. But then Juan Peron took power and initiated Argentina’s slide toward big government, which eroded the nation’s competitiveness and hampered growth.

To put it mildly, the country is an economic tragedy and it should be a lesson for all countries about the importance of good policy.

Yet why am I writing again about Argentina after last month’s analysis?

Because a story in the New York Times discusses the nation’s upcoming presidential election and manages to paint a grotesquely inaccurate picture of what’s been happening in the country. We’re supposed to believe that Macri has been a hard-charging free-market fundamentalist.

Since taking office more than three years ago, President Mauricio Macri has broken with the budget-busting populism that has dominated Argentina for much of the past century, embracing the grim arithmetic of economic orthodoxy. Mr. Macri has slashed subsidies… “It’s a neoliberal government…It’s a government that does not favor the people.” …tribulations playing out under the disintegrating roofs of the poor are a predictable dimension of Mr. Macri’s turn away from left-wing populism. He vowed to shrink Argentina’s monumental deficits by diminishing the largess of the state. …Mr. Macri’s…presidency was supposed to offer an escape from the wreckage of profligate spending.

And we’re also supposed to believe that his failed free-market policies are paving the way for a return to left-wing populism.

As the October election approaches, Mr. Macri is contending with the growing prospect of a challenge from the president he succeeded, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner… Her return would resonate as a rebuke of his market-oriented reforms while potentially yanking Argentina back to its accustomed preserve: left-wing populism.

For what it’s worth, I suspect that Kirchner will win the next election. So that part of the article is correct.

But the part about free-market reforms is laughably inaccurate.

You don’t have to believe me. Let’s look at the Argentinian data from Economic Freedom of the World. Maybe I’m being dogmatic, but I hardly think a tiny improvement in 2015 followed by backsliding in 2016 qualifies as “diminishing the largess of the state.”

The bottom line is that Macri should have been bold and made sweeping changes once he was in charge. Like Chile after Allende’s Marxist regime was deposed.

Those reforms doubtlessly would have triggered protests. But if they became law, they would have produced tangible results.

Instead, Macri chose a timid approach and the economy has remained stagnant. Yet because many voters think he adopted reforms, they blame him and they blame free markets.

The net result is that they will probably vote for Kirchner, which presumably will mean even more statism for the long-suffering people of Argentina.

P.S. What’s happening in Argentina is not an isolated example. It’s very common for supposed right-wing politicians to choose bad policies, which then paves the way for left-wing election victories. Look at how Bush’s statist policies created the conditions for an Obama victory. Or how Sarkozy set the stage for Hollande in France. Or how Theresa May’s fecklessness in the United Kingdom may lead to a win for Jeremy Corbyn.

P.P.S. I’m tempted to also warn that Trump’s risky protectionism may lead to a victory for Crazy Bernie or some other Democrat in 2020. But Trump does have some good policies as well, so it’s hard to know whether the economy will be a net plus or net minus in the election.

Read Full Post »

Donald Trump is an incoherent mix of good policies and bad policies.

Some of his potential 2020 opponents, by contrast, are coherent but crazy.

And economic craziness exists in other nations as well.

In a column for the New York Times, Jochen Bittner writes about how a rising star of Germany’s Social Democrat Party wants the type of socialism that made the former East Germany an economic failure.

Socialism, the idea that workers’ needs are best met by the collectivization of the means of production… A system in which factories, banks and even housing were nationalized required a planned economy, as a substitute for capitalist competition. Central planning, however, proved unable to meet people’s individual demands… Eventually, the entire system collapsed; as it did everywhere else, socialism in Germany failed. Which is why it is strange, in 2019, to see socialism coming back into German mainstream politics.

But this real-world evidence doesn’t matter for some Germans.

Kevin Kühnert, the leader of the Social Democrats’ youth organization and one of his party’s most promising young talents, has made it his calling card. Forget the wannabe socialism of American Democrats like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The 29-year-old Mr. Kühnert is aiming for the real thing. Socialism, he says, means democratic control over the economy. He wants to replace capitalism… German neo-socialism is profoundly different from capitalism. …Mr. Kühnert took specific aim at the American dream as a model for individual achievement. …“Without collectivization of one form or another it is unthinkable to overcome capitalism,” he told us.

In other words, he wants real socialism (i.e., government ownership). And that presumably means he also supports central planning and price controls.

What makes Kühnert’s view so absurd is that he obviously knows nothing about his nation’s history.

Just in case he reads this, let’s look at the evidence.

Jaap Sleifer’s book, Planning Ahead and Falling Behind, points out that the eastern part of Germany was actually richer than the western part prior to World War II.

The entire country’s economy was then destroyed by the war.

What happened afterwards, though, shows the difference between socialism and free enterprise.

Before…the Third Reich the East German economy had…per capita national income…103 percent of West Germany, compared to a mere 31 percent in 1991. …Here is the case of an economy that was relatively wealthy, but lost out in a relatively short time… Based on the official statistics on national product the East German growth rates were very impressive. However, …the actual performance was not that impressive at all.

Sleifer has two tables that are worth sharing.

First, nobody should be surprised to discover that communist authorities released garbage numbers that ostensibly showed faster growth.

What’s really depressing is that there were more than a few gullible Americans – including some economists – who blindly believe this nonsensical data.

Second, I like this table because it confirms that Nazism and communism are very similar from an economic perspective.

Though I guess we should give Germans credit for doing a decent job on product quality under both strains of socialism.

For those who want to read further about East German economic performance, you can find other scholarly articles here, here, and here.

I want to call special attention, though, to a column by an economist from India. Written back in 1960, even before there was a Berlin Wall, he compared the two halves of the city.

Here’s the situation in the capitalist part.

The contrast between the two Berlins cannot miss the attention of a school child. West Berlin, though an island within East Germany, is an integral part of West German economy and shares the latter’s prosperity. Destruction through bombing was impartial to the two parts of the city. Rebuilding is virtually complete in West Berlin. …The main thoroughfares of West Berlin are near jammed with prosperous looking automobile traffic, the German make of cars, big and small, being much in evidence. …The departmental stores in West Berlin are cramming with wearing apparel, other personal effects and a multiplicity of household equipment, temptingly displayed.

Here’s what he saw in the communist part.

…In East Berlin a good part of the destruction still remains; twisted iron, broken walls and heaped up rubble are common enough sights. The new structures, especially the pre-fabricated workers’ tenements, look drab. …automobiles, generally old and small cars, are in much smaller numbers than in West Berlin. …shops in East Berlin exhibit cheap articles in indifferent wrappers or containers and the prices for comparable items, despite the poor quality, are noticeably higher than in West Berlin. …Visiting East Berlin gives the impression of visiting a prison camp.

The lessons, he explained, should be quite obvious.

…the contrast of the two Berlins…the main explanation lies in the divergent political systems. The people being the same, there is no difference in talent, technological skill and aspirations of the residents of the two parts of the city. In West Berlin efforts are spontaneous and self-directed by free men, under the urge to go ahead. In East Berlin effort is centrally directed by Communist planners… The contrast in prosperity is convincing proof of the superiority of the forces of freedom over centralised planning.

Back in 2011, I shared a video highlighting the role of Ludwig Erhard in freeing the West German economy. Given today’s topic here’s an encore presentation.

Samuel Gregg, writing for FEE, elaborates about the market-driven causes of the post-war German economic miracle.

It wasn’t just Ludwig Erhard.

Seventy years ago this month, a small group of economists and legal scholars helped bring about what’s now widely known as the Wirtschaftswunder, the “German economic miracle.” Even among many Germans, names like Walter Eucken, Wilhelm Röpke, and Franz Böhm are unfamiliar today. But it’s largely thanks to their relentless advocacy of market liberalization in 1948 that what was then West Germany escaped an economic abyss… It was a rare instance of free-market intellectuals’ playing a decisive role in liberating an economy from decades of interventionist and collectivist policies.

As was mentioned in the video, the American occupiers were not on the right side.

Indeed, they exacerbated West Germany’s economic problems.

…reform was going to be easy: in 1945, few Germans were amenable to the free market. The Social Democratic Party emerged from the catacombs wanting more top-down economic planning, not less. …Further complicating matters was the fact that the military authorities in the Western-occupied zones in Germany, with many Keynesians in their contingent, admired the economic policies of Clement Atlee’s Labour government in Britain. Indeed, between 1945 and 1947, the Allied administrators left largely in place the partly collectivized, state-oriented economy put in place by the defeated Nazis. This included price-controls, widespread rationing… The result was widespread food shortages and soaring malnutrition levels.

But at least there was a happy ending.

Erhard’s June 1948 reforms…abolition of price-controls and the replacement of the Nazi-era Reichsmark with much smaller quantities of a new currency: the Deutsche Mark. These measures effectively killed off…inflation… Within six months, industrial production had increased by an incredible 50 percent. Real incomes started growing.

And Germany never looked back. Even today, it’s a reasonably market-oriented nation.

I’ll close with my modest contribution to the debate. Based on data from the OECD, here’s a look at comparative economic output in East Germany and West Germany.

You’ll notice that I added some dotted lines to illustrate that both nations presumably started at the same very low level after WWII ended.

I’ll also assert that the blue line probably exaggerates East German economic output. If you doubt that claim, check out this 1990 story from the New York Times.

The bottom line is that the economic conditions in West Germany and East Germany diverged dramatically because one had good policy (West Germany routinely scored in the top 10 for economic liberty between 1950 and 1975) and one suffered from socialism.

These numbers should be very compelling since traditional economic theory holds that incomes in countries should converge. In the real world, however, that only happens if governments don’t create too many obstacles to prosperity.

Read Full Post »

I’ve repeatedly dealt with the argument over Denmark’s supposed socialism.

My core argument is that Denmark is very bad on fiscal policy, but very laissez-faire on other issues such as regulation. The net effect is that Danes have about the same amount of economic liberty as Americans.

The bottom line is that Denmark isn’t socialist. At least not if we use the technical definition. There’s plenty of bad policy, but no government ownership, no central planning, and no price controls.

Which is basically the message in this Prager University video by Otto Brøns-Petersen from the CEPOS think tank in Denmark.

This is a great video.

Basically everything you need to know about Danish economic policy.

To augment Otto’s video, let’s review a report from some of his CEPOS colleagues.

The entire report is worth reading, but I want to focus on one excerpt and some key visuals.

First, notice that Denmark and the United States have similar levels of economic freedom.

Since I’m a public finance economist, I was very interested in some observations in the report about fiscal policy.

This excerpt notes that Denmark has a much more onerous tax burden, and it points out that the value-added tax is the main reason for the gap.

…the tax burden (taxes to GDP) is the second-highest in the OECD and 70 percent higher than in the US (46 vs. 27 per cent of GDP). …The biggest difference between the Danish and the American tax systems is that consumption taxes are much higher in Denmark. VAT is 25 per cent in Denmark while the average sales tax is 6 per cent in the US. …Including the effect of consumption taxes, the top marginal tax rate on labor income is 67 per cent in Denmark. For low and middle-income workers, it is 55 per cent. This is significantly higher than in the USA. It’s important to include consumption taxes when you calculate the effective marginal tax rate. High consumption taxes means that you can buy fewer goods for one extra working hour.

My first takeaway is that this explains why blocking the VAT is absolutely necessary for advocates of limited government in the United States.

And the second takeaway is that big government means big burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers, which is what we seen in this next chart.

Last but not least, here are two charts comparing taxes and labor supply in the United States and Denmark.

In the tax chart, you can see that the two countries were very similar from the 1930s to the 1960s. But then the tax burden in Denmark got much worse (coinciding with the imposition of the VAT).

Now take a look at hours worked in both nations.

We were very similar back in 1970. But as the Danish tax burden grew, people responded by working less and less.

In other words, more evidence to support the core insight of supply-side economics. The more you tax of something, the less you get of it.

The Philoso-raptor surely would agree.

Read Full Post »

Singapore is routinely ranked as the world’s 2nd-freest economy, trailing only Hong Kong.

The nation’s laissez-faire approach has yielded big dividends. Singapore is now über prosperous, richer than both the United States and United Kingdom.

But there are problems in paradise.

Advocates of class-warfare policy (see here and here) are urging higher tax burdens. And even though there’s no reason to raise taxes (Singapore has a huge budget surplus), politicians have catered to this noisy clique in recent years (see here and here).

In a column for the Straits Times that I co-wrote with Donovan Choy of Singapore’s Adam Smith Centre, we explain why the government should slam the door on all tax hikes, especially proposals targeting entrepreneurs and investors.

Singapore has shown that conventional theories about economic growth need to be updated to reflect that growth doesn’t necessarily need to weaken once a nation becomes prosperous. Singaporeans should be thankful for the sensible governance that has made the nation a role model. Unfortunately, some people are willing to threaten the country’s prosperity by urging higher tax burdens on the wealthy. They risk national competitiveness by advocating additional layers of tax on income that is saved and invested. This “class warfare” approach is deeply misguided, especially in a globalised economy.

We list six specific guidelines for sensible policy.

Two of them are worth highlighting, starting with the fact that Singapore so far has avoided the trap of “Wagner’s Law.”

What makes Singapore special is that it avoided the mistakes other nations made when they became rich. Countries in North America and Western Europe created costly welfare states once they became relatively prosperous. This is known to academics as Wagner’s Law, and it has serious consequences since larger public sectors reduce competitiveness and lead to less growth.

We also explain that discriminatory taxes on saving and investment are the most destructive method of collecting revenue.

Proponents assert that dividend and capital gains taxes are needed so that upper-income people pay tax. But this line of thinking is misguided. Such income is already subject to 17 per cent corporate income taxation in Singapore. Imposing dividend and capital gains taxes would mean such income is subject to increasing layers of discriminatory taxation. The result is to discourage capital formation (savings and investment) – the very essence of entrepreneurship. And that approach is economically foolish, since all economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – agree that saving and investment are key to long-run growth and rising living standards.

Since today’s topic is Singapore, let’s look at some additional material.

We’ll start with two articles that Donovan wrote for the Foundation for Economic Education.

The first column explains a bit of the history.

The country’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, is often recognized as the father of Singapore. If that is so, then the grandfathers of Singapore would rightfully be three men: Sir Stamford Raffles, who founded the trade settlement, William Farquhar, whom Raffles put at the helm of Singapore in his periodic years of absences, and John Crawfurd, whom Raffles appointed to succeed Farquhar. …Raffles’s intentions were plain as he wrote in a letter in June 1819: “Our object is not territory but trade; a great commercial emporium…,” and to develop “the utmost possible freedom of trade and equal rights to all, with protection of property and person”. …Like Farquhar, Crawfurd shared Raffles’s strong free-market beliefs and pushed his laissez-faire policies even harder… The common denominator of the grandfathers of Singapore was their economic philosophies – capitalism and free enterprise were at the root of their beliefs. The first leaders of colonial Singapore were staunch classical liberals who professed strong beliefs in economic freedoms

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that this is somewhat similar to Hong Kong’s economic history.

Donovan’s next column looks at how Singapore has wisely limited redistribution.

The Singapore welfare system is considered one of the most successful by first-world standards. World Bank data shows that Singapore’s government health expenditure in 2015 is only 4.3 percent of GDP, a small fraction in comparison to other first-world countries…while achieving comparatively equal or better health outcomes… While most of Europe, Scandinavia, and North America spend 30-40 percent of GDP on social welfare programs, Singapore spends less than half as much… qualifying for welfare is notoriously difficult by the standards of most of the developed Western world. The Singapore government’s position on welfare handouts is undergirded by a staunch economic philosophy of self-reliance and self-responsibility where the first lines of welfare should be derived from one’s individual savings, the family unit, and local communities before turning to the government. …This philosophy of self-reliance and responsibility is prominent not only in social welfare but is also replicated in the Singapore government’s approach to retirement savings, health care, education, and housing. For instance, the state’s preferred policy of ensuring individuals have sufficient resources for a rainy day is via the Central Provident Fund, a government-mandated savings account.

Again, much like Hong Kong.

Singapore also has what is probably the most market-oriented healthcare system in the world.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the New York Times.

…it achieves some outcomes Americans would find remarkable. Life expectancy at birth is two to three years longer than in Britain or the United States. Its infant mortality rate is among the lowest in the world, about half that of the United States…about two-thirds of health care spending is private, and about one-third is public. It’s just about the opposite in the United States. …What also sets Singapore apart, and what makes it beloved among many conservative policy analysts, is its reliance on health savings accounts. All workers are mandated to put a decent percentage of their earnings into savings for the future. …why is Singapore so cheap? Some think that it’s the strong use of health savings accounts and cost-sharing. People who have to use their own money usually spend less.

The country is also remarkably free of crime, as noted by CNBC.

Singapore was recently ranked second on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Safe Cities Index for 2017, coming in just behind Tokyo. In 2016, the island nation’s police reported 135 total days without any crimes including snatch-theft, house break-ins and robbery. That low crime rate means many small businesses enjoy little concern about shoplifting. …local businesses take few precautions when closing shop at night. For instance, in the ground floor lobby of a mixed-use building in the downtown business district, many shops don’t have windows, locks — or even doors.

Though it is not a total libertarian paradise.

A column in Bloomberg warns the Brexit crowd that there are statist components to Singapore’s regime.

Over 80 percent of the population lives in public housing… In industrial policy, the government oversees a plethora of schemes targeting mostly off-budget public funding to particular sectors such as biopharma and aerospace, as well as activities such as R&D and skills training. Government-linked companies, whose controlling shareholder is the sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings Pte. Ltd., are the dominant players in transport, communications, real estate and media.

Let’s close with a column Professor Steve Hanke authored for Forbes.

Singapore validates Adam Smith’s counsel on economic development: “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.” …Singapore, Hong Kong, and even the Cayman Islands exemplify commerce-oriented city-states. How can such a small player, like Singapore, achieve prominence on the world’s stage? …acting as a commercial republic and embracing a regime of entrepreneurial public finance. …the culture of an entrepreneurial inclined city-state – like Singapore – differs significantly from that of a parasitical state that feeds on tax extractions.

Here’s his comparison of a predatory government compared to a pro-market government.

Singapore is a successful example of the right column.

Sounds like a model the United States should follow.

Assuming, of course, Singapore retains good policy.

P.S. I’ve also had to explain why the Cayman Islands should retain good policy.

P.P.S. Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that the OECD tries very hard to overlook the success of Singapore’s low-tax model.

P.P.P.S. Singapore is in first place in my “laissez-faire index.”

Read Full Post »

International development experts often write about a “middle-income trap.”

According to this theory, it’s not that challenging for nations to climb out of poverty, but it’s difficult for them to take the next step and become rich countries.

The theory makes sense to many people because it describes much of what we see in the real world.

We even see the trap at higher levels of income. European nations were catching up with the United States after World War II, but then the convergence process stalled.

But I don’t think there’s actually a “middle-income trap.” Instead, nations don’t enjoy full convergence because they are hamstrung by bad policy.

And Hong Kong and Singapore are the best evidence for my hypothesis. These two jurisdictions have routinely ranked #1 and #2 for economic freedom.

And their solid track record of free markets and small government has paid big dividends. Here a chart, for Our World in Data, which shows how they have fully converged with the United States after starting way behind.

The performance of Hong Kong and Singapore is particularly impressive because the United States historically has been a top-10 nation for economic liberty (notwithstanding all my grousing about bad policy in America, we’ve been fairly good compared to the rest of the world).

So it takes extraordinarily good performance to catch up.

But it can happen.

P.S. By the way, one thing I noticed in the above chart is that Singapore has surpassed Hong Kong in the past couple of decades. This could just be a statistical blip, though I wonder if this is a result of the transfer of Hong Kong from British control to Chinese control. Yes, China has wisely chosen not to interfere with Hong Kong’s domestic policy, but perhaps investors and entrepreneurs don’t fully trust that this economic autonomy will continue.

P.P.S. Don’t forget that comparatively rich nations can de-converge if they adopt bad policy.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: