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Posts Tagged ‘Statism’

I’ve had several reporters ask me to comment on the philosophical and policy differences between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

I’m always happy to oblige, yet I don’t think any of them have included my comments in their stories because I always give what seems to be a very unsatisfactory response.  My standard line is that Sanders and Clinton are two peas in a statist pod.

Yes, I realize that Sanders has a more aggressive us-vs-them approach, while Hillary is calculated and cautious, but those are merely differences in rhetoric and style.

What matters is action. And if you look at the Senate voting records of Sanders and Clinton, there’s almost no difference between them (or, for that matter, between them and Obama).

Let’s look at some of their policy proposals. Here are some excerpts from a Townhall column on Sanders’ statist agenda.

According to Bernienomics, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would prevent greedy capitalists from exploiting their workers and paying below a “living wage.” …Sanders…is…fighting for European style “free college”…Sanders supports the Environmental Protection Agency’s CO2 emission standards, even though these will raise the costs of energy and manufacturing. Sanders also supported allowing the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the internet as public utility… Sanders wants to raise taxes on the rich as much as possible…he has stated his desire to tax the rich at more than a 50 percent income tax rate. Sanders also recently proposed a massive increase in the estate tax… Sanders believes that Social Security is the “most successful government programs in American history,” so it only makes sense that he wants to expand it. …Sanders is also a major proponent of a single-payer health care system.

In other words, a typical statist agenda.

What about Hillary? Well, she’s must more guarded in what she says, but you can get a sense for her ideological mindset by looking at her new scheme to boost the capital gains tax.

Here’s some of what Ryan Ellis wrote for Americans for Tax Reform.

Hillary Clinton today proposed the most complex and Byzantine capital gains tax rate regime in history. …Under the Clinton plan, there would be six – yes, six — capital gains tax rates for those whose total taxable income puts them in the top 39.6 percent bracket. …or taxpayers not in the 39.6 percent bracket, we already have a graduated capital gains structure on assets held longer than a year. For taxpayers in this range, the rates could be 0, 15, 18.8, 20, or 23.8 percent. …her plan actually creates 10 different tax rates on capital gains, not counting those gains taxed as ordinary income due to their shorter duration of ownership. By anyone’s definition that’s really stupid tax policy. It will only serve to distort capital markets as investors will buy and sell not based on rational market signals, but on exogenous, arbitrary tax holding period considerations.

Not to mention that higher tax rates on investment will discourage risk-taking and entrepreneurship. And let’s not forget that it’s not a smart idea, from the perspective of competitiveness, to have the world’s highest capital gains tax rate. Or to pursue policies that will depress capital formation and thus lead to lower wages.

Now let’s get back to the main question. Is there a difference between Sanders and Clinton?

One could argue that Sanders has a more robust left-wing agenda. But that doesn’t make Clinton a moderate. Indeed, I challenge anyone to identify a single position she holds that would result in smaller government or less intervention.

The bottom line, as illustrated by this cartoon prepared by Jonathan Babington-Heina, is that Sanders and Clinton only differ in how fast they want to travel in the wrong direction.

P.S. This is the second cartoon from Jonathan I’ve shared. He also put together a superb cartoon that depicts the senseless damage caused by double taxation.

P.P.S. You also can get a sense of Hillary’s leftist mindest by looking at some of the crazy things she’s said over the years.

And to be balanced, Bernie also says crazy things. Let’s close with this example of political humor I saw on Twitter.

And here’s some more Hillary humor if you still haven’t received your recommended daily allowance.

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Folks on the left sometimes act as if the Nordic nations somehow prove that big government isn’t an impediment to prosperity.

As I’ve pointed out before, they obviously don’t spend much time looking at the data.

So let’s give them a reminder. Here are the rankings from Economic Freedom of the World. I’ve inserted red arrows to draw attention to the Nordic nations. As you can see, every single one of them is in the top quartile, meaning that they aren’t big-government jurisdictions by world standards.

Moreover, Finland ranks above the United States. Denmark is higher than Estonia, which is often cited a free-market success story. And all of them rank ahead of Slovakia, which also is known for pro-growth reforms.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean the Nordic nations are libertarian paradises. Far from it.

Government is far too big in those countries, just as it is far too big in the United States, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada, and other nations in the top quartile.

Which is tragic since the burden of government spending in North America and Western Europe used to be just a fraction of current levels – even in nations such as Sweden.

The way I’ve described the Nordic nations is that they have bloated and costly welfare states but compensate for that bad policy by being very free market in other policy areas.

But you don’t need to believe me. Nima Sanandaji has just written an excellent new monograph for the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. Entitled Scandinavian Unexceptionalism: Culture, Markets and the Failure of Third-Way Socialism, Nima’s work explains how the Nordic nations became rich during an era of small government and free markets, how they then veered in the wrong direction, but are now trying to restore more economic freedom.

Here are some key excerpts, starting with some much-needed economic history.

Scandinavia’s success story predated the welfare state. …As late as 1960, tax revenues in the Nordic nations ranged between 25 per cent of GDP in Denmark to 32 per cent in Norway – similar to other developed countries. …Scandinavia’s more equal societies also developed well before the welfare states expanded. Income inequality reduced dramatically during the last three decades of the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, most of the shift towards greater equality happened before the introduction of a large public sector and high taxes. …The phenomenal national income growth in the Nordic nations occurred before the rise of large welfare states. The rise in living standards was made possible when cultures based on social cohesion, high levels of trust and strong work ethics were combined with free markets and low taxes….the Nordic success story reinforces the idea that business-friendly and small-government-oriented policies can promote growth.

Here’s a chart from the book showing remarkable growth for Sweden and Denmark in the pre-welfare state era.

Nima has extra details about his home country of Sweden.

In the hundred years following the market liberalisation of the late 19th century and the onset of industrialisation, Sweden experienced phenomenal economic growth (Maddison 1982). Famous Swedish companies such as IKEA, Volvo, Tetra Pak, H&M, Ericsson and Alfa Laval were all founded during this period, and were aided by business-friendly economic policies and low taxes.

Unfortunately, Nordic nations veered to the left in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And, not surprisingly, that’s when growth began to deteriorate.

The third-way radical social democratic era in Scandinavia, much admired by the left, only lasted from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. The rate of business formation during the third-way era was dreadful.
Again, he has additional details about Sweden.
Sweden’s wealth creation slowed down following the transition to a high tax burden and a large public sector. …As late as 1975 Sweden was ranked as the 4th richest nation in the world according to OECD measures….the policy shift that occurred dramatically slowed down the growth rate. Sweden dropped to 13th place in the mid 1990s. …It is interesting that the left rarely discusses this calamitous Swedish growth performance from 1970 to 2000.

The good news is that Nordic nations have begun to shift back toward market-oriented policies. Some of them have reduced the burden of government spending. All of them have lowered tax rates, particularly on business and investment income. And there have even been some welfare reforms.

…there has been a tentative return to free markets. In education in Sweden, parental choice has been promoted. There has also been reform to pensions systems, sickness benefits and labour market regulations

But there’s no question that the welfare state and its concomitant tax burden are still the biggest problem in the region. Which  is why it is critical that Nordic nations maintain pro-market policies on regulation, trade, monetary policy, rule of law and property rights.

Scandinavian countries have compensated for a large public sector by increasing economic liberty in other areas. During recent decades, Nordic nations have implemented major market liberalisations to compensate for the growth-inhibiting effects of taxes and labour market policies.

Let’s close with what I consider to be the strongest evidence from Nima’s publication. He shows that Scandinavians who emigrated to America are considerably richer than their counterparts who stayed put.

Median incomes of Scandinavian descendants are 20 per cent higher than average US incomes. It is true that poverty rates in Scandinavian countries are lower than in the US. However, the poverty rate among descendants of Nordic immigrants in the US today is half the average poverty rate of Americans – this has been a consistent finding for decades. In fact, Scandinavian Americans have lower poverty rates than Scandinavian citizens who have not emigrated. …the median household income in the United States is $51,914. This can be compared with a median household income of $61,920 for Danish Americans, $59,379 for Finnish-Americans, $60,935 for Norwegian Americans and $61,549 for Swedish Americans. There is also a group identifying themselves simply as ‘Scandinavian Americans’ in the US Census. The median household income for this group is even higher at $66,219. …Danish Americans have a contribution to GDP per capita 37 per cent higher than Danes still living in Denmark; Swedish Americans contribute 39 percent more to GDP per capita than Swedes living in Sweden; and Finnish Americans contribute 47 per cent more than Finns living in Finland.

In other words, when you do apples to apples comparisons, either of peoples or nations, you find that smaller government and free markets lead to more prosperity.

That’s the real lesson from the Nordic nations.

P.S. Just in case readers think I’m being too favorable to the Nordic nations, rest assured that I’m very critical of the bad policies in these nations.

Just look at what I’ve written, for instance, about Sweden’s healthcare system or Denmark’s dependency problem.

But I will give praise when any nation, from any part of the world, takes steps in the right direction.

And I do distinguish between the big-government/free-market systems you find in Nordic nations and the big-government/crony-intervention systems you find in countries like France and Greece.

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If you want to go to a Presbyterian church instead of a Baptist church, should the government be able to interfere with that choice? Even if, for some bizarre reason, 95 percent of the population doesn’t like Presbyterians?

If you want to march up and down the sidewalk in front of City Hall with a sign that says the Mayor is an idiot, should the government be able to throw you in jail? Even if 95 percent of the population somehow has decided the Mayor is a genius?

Most Americans instinctively understand that the answer to all these question is no. Not just no, a big emphatic NO!

That’s because certain rights are guaranteed by our Constitution, regardless of whether an overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens feel otherwise.

And that’s what makes us a republic rather than a democracy.

But the bad news is that many of our rights in the Constitution no longer are protected.

For instance, Article I, Section 8, specifically enumerates (what are supposed to be) the very limited powers of Congress.

Our Founding Fathers thought it was okay for Congress to have the power to create courts, to coin money, to fund an army, and to have the authority to do a few other things.

But here are some things that are not on that list of enumerated powers (and certainly not included in the list of presidential powers either):

And the list could go on for several pages. The point is that the entire modern Washington-based welfare state, with all its redistribution and so-called social insurance, is inconsistent with the limited-government republic created by America’s Founders.

These programs exist today because the Supreme Court put ideology above the Constitution during the New Deal and, at least in the economic sphere, turned the nation from a constitutional republic into a democracy based on unconstrained majoritarianism.

Here’s some of Walter Williams wrote on the topic.

Like the founders of our nation, I find democracy and majority rule a contemptible form of government. …James Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 10, said that in a pure democracy, “there is nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or the obnoxious individual.” …John Adams said, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” …The word “democracy” appears nowhere in the two most fundamental documents of our nation — the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. …the Constitution’s First Amendment doesn’t say Congress shall grant us freedom of speech, the press and religion. It says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” …In a democracy, the majority rules either directly or through its elected representatives. …Laws do not represent reason. They represent force. The restraint is upon the individual instead of government. Unlike that envisioned under a republican form of government, rights are seen as privileges and permissions that are granted by government and can be rescinded by government. …ask yourself how many decisions in your life would you like to be made democratically. How about what car you drive, where you live, whom you marry, whether you have turkey or ham for Thanksgiving dinner?

And click here for a video that explains in greater detail why majoritarianism is a bad idea.

But perhaps these cartoons will make it even easier to understand why 51 percent of the population shouldn’t be allowed to rape and pillage 49 percent of the population.

We’ll start with this depiction of modern elections, which was featured on a friend’s Facebook page.

And here’s one that I’ve shared before.

It highlights the dangers of majoritarianism, particularly if you happen to be a minority.

P.S. George Will has explained that the Supreme Court’s job is to protect Americans from democracy.

P.P.S. Here’s more analysis of the issue from Walter Williams.

P.P.P.S. Some leftists are totally oblivious about America’s system of government.

P.P.P.P.S. Though Republicans also don’t really understand what the Constitution requires.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Looking at the mess in the Middle East, I’ve argued we would be in much better shape if we promoted liberty instead of democracy.

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One would think that Europeans might finally be realizing that an ever-growing welfare state and an ever-rising tax burden are a form of economic suicide.

The most obvious bit of evidence is to look at what’s happening in Greece. Simply stated, public policy for too long has punished workers and producers while rewarding looters and moochers. The result is economic collapse, bailouts, and the destruction of cultural capital.

But Greece is just the tip of the iceberg. Many other European nations are heading in the same direction and it shows up in the economic data. Living standards are already considerably lower than they are in the United States. Yet instead of the “convergence” that’s assumed in conventional economic theory, the Europeans are falling further behind instead of catching up.

There are some officials sounding the alarm.

In a column for the Brussels Times, Philippe Legrain, the former economic adviser to the President of the European Commission, has a glum assessment of the European Union.

In 2007, the EU accounted for 31 per cent of the world economy, measured at market prices. This year, it will account for only 22 per cent, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Eight years ago, the EU’s economy was a fifth bigger than the US’s; this year it is set to be smaller than America’s. …Continued economic decline seems inevitable.

But it seems that the folks who recognize that there is a problem are greatly out-numbered by those who want to make the problem worse.

For instance, one would think that any sentient adult would understand that the overall burden of government spending in Europe is a problem, particularly outlays for redistribution programs that undermine incentives for productive behavior.

Yet, as reported by the EU Observer, some statists at the European Commission want to mandate the amounts of redistribution in member nations.

The European Commission is to push for minimum standards on social protection across member states… Employment commissioner Marianne Thyssen Tuesday (9 June) said she wants to see minimum unemployment benefits, a minimum income, access to child care, and access to basic health care in all 28 countries. …The commission will look into whether “enough people are covered in member states when they have an unemployment problem; how long are they protected. What is the level of the unemployment benefit in comparison with the former wage they earned,” said Thyssen. …”The aim is to have an upper convergence…”

This is a horrible idea. It’s basically designed to impose a rule that forces nations to be more like France and Greece.

Instead of competition, innovation, and diversity, Europe would move even further in the direction of one-size-fits-all centralization.

Though I give her credit for admitting that the purpose of harmonization is to force more spending, what she calls “upper convergence.” So we can add Ms. Thyssen to our list of honest statists.

And speaking of centralization, some politicians want to go beyond mandates and harmonization and also have EU-wide taxes and spending.

Here are some of the details from a report in the U.K.-based Guardian.

German and French politicians are calling for a…eurozone treasury equipped with a eurozone finance chief, single budget, tax-raising powers, pooled debt liabilities, a common monetary fund, and separate organisation and representation within the European parliament. …They call for the setting up of “an embryo euro area budget”, “a fiscal capacity over and above national budgets”, and harmonised corporate taxes across the bloc. The eurozone would be able to borrow on the markets against its budget, which would be financed from a kind of Tobin tax on financial transactions and also from part of the revenue from the new business tax regime.

By the way, this initiative to impose another layer of taxes and spending in Europe isn’t being advocated by irrelevant back-bench politicians. It’s being pushed by Germany’s Vice Chancellor and France’s Economy Minister!

Thankfully, not everyone in Europe is economically insane. Syed Kamall, a member of the European Parliament form the U.K.’s Conservative Party, is unimpressed with this vision of greater centralization, harmonization, and bureaucratization.

Here’s some of what he wrote in a column for the EU Observer.

The socialist dream that these two politicians propose would soon turn into a nightmare not just for the Eurozone, but for the entire EU. …Their socialist vision of harmonised taxation and more social policies sounds utopian on paper but it fails to accept a basic fact: that Europe is not the world, and Europe cannot close itself off from the world. …After several decades of centralisation in the EU, we have seen the results: …a failure to keep up with growing economic competitiveness in many parts of the world. …Specific proposals such as harmonised corporate taxes are nothing new from the socialists, but they would reduce European competitiveness. …With greater harmonisation Europe’s tax rate would only be as low as the highest-taxing member. …

Syed’s point about Europe not being the world is especially relevant because the damage of one-size-fits-all centralization manifests itself much faster when jobs and capital can simply migrate to other jurisdictions.

And while the Europeans are trying to undermine the competitiveness of other nations with various tax harmonization schemes, that’s not going to arrest Europe’s decline.

Simply stated, Europe is imposing bad policy internally at a much faster rate than it can impose bad policy externally.

P.S. Let’s close with some humor sent to me by the Princess of the Levant.

It features the libertarian character from Parks and Recreation.

And I even found the YouTube clip of this scene.

Which is definitely worth watching because of how Swanson explains the tax system.

I particularly like the part about the capital gains tax. It’s a good way of illustrating double taxation.

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Maybe the warm weather is affecting my judgement, but I’m finding myself in the odd position of admiring some folks on the left for their honesty.

A few days ago, for instance, I (sort of) applauded Matthew Yglesias for openly admitting that punitive tax rates would put us on the downward-sloping portion of the Laffer Curve.

He still favors such a policy, which is very bizarre, but at least his approach is much more honest than other statists who want us to believe that very high tax rates generate more revenue.

Today, I’m going to indirectly give kudos to another leftist.

Writing for the Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel openly argues that the meaning of freedom should be changed. Here’s some of her argument, and we’ll start with her reasonably fair description of how freedom currently is interpreted.

For conservatives, freedom is centered in markets, free from government interference. …Government is the threat; the best thing it can do is to get out of the way. …freedom entails privatization, deregulation, limiting government’s reach and capacity.

Needless to say, I agree with this definition. After all, isn’t freedom just another way of saying “the absence of coercive constraint on the individual?

Heck, this is why I’m a libertarian. Sure, I like the fact that liberty produces more prosperity, but my main goal it to eliminate needless government coercion.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to her column. She complains that folks on the left have acquiesced to this traditional conception of freedom.

Democrats chose to tack to these conservative winds. Bill Clinton’s New Democrats echoed the themes rather than challenge them. “The era of big government is over,” he told Americans, while celebrating “ending welfare as we know it,” deregulation of Wall Street… Obama chose consciously not to challenge the conservative limits on what freedom means.

Then she gets to her main argument. She wants Hillary Clinton to lead an effort to redefine the meaning of freedom.

This is Hillary Clinton’s historic opportunity. …She would do a great service for the country — and for her own political prospects — by offering a far more expansive American view of what freedom requires, and what threatens it. …expanding freedom from want by lifting the floor under workers, insuring every child a healthy start, providing free public education from pre-k to college, rebuilding the United States and putting people to work… Will she favor fair taxes on the rich and corporations to rebuild the United States and put people to work? Will she make the case for vital public investments — in new energy, in infrastructure, in education and training — that have been starved for too long? Will she call for breaking up banks…? Will she favor expanding social security…? …to offer Americans a bolder conception of freedom…and set up the debate that America must decide.

Needless to say, I strongly disagree with such policies. How can “freedom” be based on having entitlements to other people’s money?!?

Heck, it’s almost like slavery since it presupposes that a “right” to live off the labor of others. But that’s not technically true since presumably there wouldn’t be any requirement to work. So what would really happen in such a society is that people would conclude it’s better to ride in the wagon of government dependency, as illustrated by these cartoons.

Which means, sooner or later, a Greek-style collapse because a shrinking population of producers can’t keep pace with an ever-expanding population of moochers and looters.

Nonetheless, I give Ms. vanden Heuvel credit for acknowledging that her preferred policies are contrary to the traditional definition of freedom.

To be sure, I’d admire her even more if she simply admitted that she favors government coercion over freedom. That would be true honesty, but I can understand that folks on the left would prefer to change the meaning of words rather than admit what their agenda really implies.

P.S. Some of you may recognize that the issues discussed above are basically a rehash of the debate between advocates of “negative liberty” and supporters of “positive liberty.” The former is focused on protecting people from the predations of government while the latter is about somehow guaranteeing goodies from the government.

P.P.S. As mentioned in Ms. vanden Heuvel’s column, today’s effort to redefine freedom is similar to the so-called economic bill of rights peddled in the 1940s by FDR.

 

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Since almost everybody wants a society that is just, that presumably means we all favor “social justice.”

But in the American political system, the phrase has been adopted by those who favor bigger government and more intervention. Sort of the way “solidarity” and “social” are code words for statism in Europe.

Leftists think that this phrase gives them the moral high ground, but shouldn’t we judge “social justice” by outcomes rather than intentions?

Is statism really compassionate if it actually winds up lining the pockets of wealthy insiders?

Is statism really compassionate when it gives people an excuse to be stingy, as we see in Europe?

Is statism really compassionate when it means less long-run growth and lower living standards for ordinary people?

The answers to those questions probably depend on one’s definition of a just society.

For those fixated on equality, it appears that they are willing to accept more deprivation and hardship if everyone is equally poor. Which is the sentiment expressed in this clever image.

Supporters of liberty, by contrast, want less government because they don’t mind if some people get richer faster than other people get richer.

You won’t (or at least shouldn’t) be surprised that John Stossel is in the latter category. Writing for Reason, he debunks the notion that “social justice” is either social or justice. Instead, he explains that it’s just a new term for a defective product.

Protestors demand “social justice.” …But there’s nothing “just” about the leftist protesters’ claimed solution: more big government.

He points out that Venezuela supposedly is a role model for social justice, yet ordinary people are impoverished.

Oliver Stone, Sean Penn and Harry Belafonte praised Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez for his socialist revolution. Chavez then proceeded to destroy much of his country. …Only socialism could take an oil-rich nation and turn it into one where people wait in line for hours for survival rations.

Stossel correctly explains that genuine social justice is achieved with free markets.

Without the free market setting prices and allocating resources, all the cries of “justice” in the world don’t help anyone. You can’t eat justice. You can’t use it as toilet paper. …Socialists say capitalists just want to make a quick buck, but it’s government that can’t plan for the long haul. …Calling it “social justice” doesn’t make it work. …Markets, in which individuals, not just rulers, have property rights, give people options. Businesses have an incentive to serve as many people as possible, regardless of gender or ethnic group. They also have an incentive to be nice—customers are more likely to trade with people who treat them fairly. Everyone gets to choose his own path. That’s what I call justice.

Of course, I’m not holding my breath waiting for statists to agree with me or John Stossel.

That’s because, as Jonah Goldberg explains in this Prager University video, “social justice” is a catch-all term for the left’s agenda. And that agenda means more power for government and less freedom for individuals.

I particularly like how Jonah explains how statists are the ones that want to impose their values on others.

P.S. If you enjoyed this video, you’ll also like other Prager University videos, including ones on profits, the Laffer Curve, and the Great Depression.

P.P.S. I wrote last month to mock Senator Bernie Sanders for being a hopeless statist, but I also said he was a “faux socialist.”

George Will has the same jaded assessment.

Is it obligatory to take seriously his pose of being…a “socialist”? It gives excitable Democratic activists a frisson of naughtiness to pretend… In olden days, socialism meant something robust — government ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Then, voters and reality being resistant to such socialism, the idea was diluted to mean just government ownership of an economy’s “commanding heights,” principally heavy industries, coal mines, railroads, etc.

But you’d have a hard time finding people who still believe that nonsense, even in the diluted form. In Europe, for instance, Social Democrats have morphed into conventional statists.

Today, “socialism,” at least in Western Europe where the term is still part of the political lexicon, is the thin gruel of “social democracy.” This means three things — heavy government regulation of commercial activities, government provision of a “social safety net” and redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation and entitlement programs. …Sanders, who thinks European social democracies are exemplary, evidently thinks America should be more like Greece.

And Thomas Sowell has the best (and most hard-hitting) way of describing the ideology of modern-day statists.

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Over the years, I’ve had many arguments about economic policy with my statist friends. I put them into three categories.

  • The completely unreasonable statists blindly assert, notwithstanding all the evidence around the world, that bigger government and more intervention are actually good for growth.
  • The somewhat unreasonable statists acknowledge that bigger government and more intervention might have some minor “efficiency” costs, but those costs are acceptable and affordable in the pursuit of more “equity.”
  • The semi-reasonable statists admit that bigger government and more intervention hurt growth, but they argue that “libertarian types” must somehow be wrong because our predictions of economic chaos never materialize.

The folks in the last category have a point. For decades, advocates of limited government and free markets have warned about the economic cost of bad policy, yet where’s the collapse?

Why hasn’t Atlas shrugged, as libertarians have warned? Why have predictions of economic dystopia (examples here and here) been wrong?

I have two responses to these questions.

First, the economic damage caused by an expanding welfare state has been offset by improvements in other types of economic policy.

Second, maybe dour libertarians have been right, but got the timing wrong because it takes a long time and a lot of bad policy to destroy an economy.

And that’s today’s topic, because it certainly looks like both Greece and Venezuela have finally reached the end of the road. Let’s call it the Thatcher Inflection Point.

Here are some excerpts from a very grim New York Times story about the economic misery in Greece

Bulldozers lie abandoned on city streets. Exhausted surgeons operate through the night. And the wealthy bail out broke police departments. A nearly bankrupt Greece is taking desperate measures to preserve cash. …In a society that has lived off the generosity of the government for decades, the cash crisis has already had a shattering impact. Universities, hospitals and municipalities are struggling to provide basic services… Greece is already operating as a bankrupt state. …For a generation of Greek politicians who saw government spending (and borrowing) as a national birthright, the idea of deploying only the money at hand has been jarring.

Egads, imagine the horror of only being able to consume what you’re able to produce. Obviously a violation of human rights!

Though some people apparently are learning the right lesson.

…for other Greeks who are eager to break from the country’s tradition of dispensing political favors to the well-connected, these years of imposed restraint have also provided a valuable lesson. “There are no free rides in this country anymore,” said Kostas Bakoyannis, 37, the governor of the Central Greece administrative region. “…Now we have to live on what we can make and produce.”

By the way, don’t cry too many tears for the Greeks. Yes, they’ve had to make genuine budget cuts since outlays peaked near the end of last decade. But government spending in Greece, after adjusting for inflation, is about the same level it was in 2000.

And that wasn’t an era of “harsh austerity.”

In other words, Greece wouldn’t be in trouble today had politicians simply obeyed my Golden Rule.

Besides, how can you feel sorry for a nation that subsidizes pedophiles and requires…um…stool samples to set up online companies.

When it comes to bizarre government policy, Greece truly is special.

Now let’s look at Venezuela, where economic buffoonery is an art form. My Cato colleague Steve Hanke has a new column about that nation’s grotesquely reckless monetary policy.

I estimate Venezuela’s annual inflation rate at 335%. That’s the highest rate in the world. For those holding bolivars, it amounts to: “no rule of law, bad money.” …Facing this inflationary theft, Venezuelan’s have voted with their wallets. Indeed, they have unofficially begun to dollarize the economy.

Here’s John Hinderaker’s summary of the overall situation.

When a country can neither produce nor buy toilet paper, you know the end is approaching. …Venezuela’s regime is long past eating its seed corn; now it’s selling the furniture. Will Maduro’s government default on the country’s debt, some of which carries 30% interest? …The IMF is helping to keep Venezuela’s economy afloat, and if oil prices rise, the Maduro regime might be able to buy a little more time. But the end game is obvious: economic collapse.

I’ll add one modification (and I’m sure John would agree), which is that economic collapse is obvious if policy stays on the current path.

Venezuela (or Greece, or any other nation) could save itself by shifting to a policy of free markets and small government. But I’m not holding my breath.

By the way, I suppose we could also use the example of the Soviet Union. That was a collapse of turbo-charged big government.

But let’s close instead with a point about richer nations in the western world because some readers understandably are thinking that countries such as Germany, Japan, and the United States will never suffer the fate of nations such as Greece, Venezuela, and the Soviet Union.

That’s probably true, but keep in mind that demographic changes are a wild card. Simply stated, aging populations and poorly designed entitlement programs are a very unpalatable combination.

And if governments wait too long to implement reforms, the political obstacles may be too great. Restoring good policy is a lot harder once the people in the wagon outnumber the folks pulling the wagon (as illustrated by these cartoons).

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