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Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’s Law’

In this clip from a recent interview with Gunther Fehlinger, I explore the connection between two very important important economic concepts: Convergence and Wagner’s Law.

Before launching into further discussion, let’s nail down two very important definitions.

  • Convergence is the notion that poor countries should grow faster than rich countries and eventually attain a similar level of prosperity.
  • Wagner’s Law is the seemingly paradoxical observation that richer nations tend to have larger fiscal burdens than poorer nations.

These two concepts deserve elaboration because many people either fail to recognize the implications or they draw the wrong conclusions.

For instance, convergence is a sensible theory, but the rate of convergence (or divergence!) is very dependent on the degree to which nations have good policy (or bad policy).

Moreover, Wagner’s Law shows that politicians figure out how to extract more money and fund bigger government once nations become rich, but some people reverse the causality and assert that big government somehow caused nations to become rich.

The key takeaway from these observations, as I explained in the interview, is that poor nations that want convergence need to copy the policies that rich nations had when they became rich (in the interview at about 0:56, I mistakenly said “were rich” rather than “became rich”).

And I’ve written many times to show that the rich nations of the western world made the leap to industrial prosperity in the 1800s and early 1900s – at a time when they had no welfare states and very low fiscal burdens (indeed most of them didn’t have any income taxes during that period).

Which gives me another excuse to re-issue my never-answered challenge: Please show me an example, from any point in world history, of a country became rich after adopting big government.

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Last week, I shared a graph showing that there are more guns than people in the United States, and I wrote that it was the “most enjoyable” chart of the year, mostly because it gets my leftist friends so agitated.

But I’m more likely to share gloomy visuals.

  • The “most depressing” chart about Denmark, which shows a majority of the population lives off government.
  • A “very depressing” chart about the United States, which shows how big business profits from cronyism.
  • The “most depressing” chart about Japan, which shows that the tax burden has nearly doubled since 1965.

Now it’s time to add to that list. There’s a website called “Our World in Data,” which is a great resource if you’re a policy wonk who likes numbers. But some numbers are quite depressing.

For instance,if you peruse the “public spending” page, you’ll find a chart showing the dramatic expansion of redistribution spending as a share of economic output.

These numbers are very similar to the table I shared from Vito Tanzi back in 2013, which isn’t surprising since Professor Peter Lindert is the underlying source for both sets of data.

While the above chart is depressing to a libertarian, it’s nonetheless instructive because it confirms my argument that the western world became rich when government was very small and redistribution was tiny or even nonexistent.

For instance, nations in North America and Western Europe largely made the transition from agricultural poverty to middle-class prosperity during the “golden century” between the Napoleanic wars and World War I. And that was a period when redistribution spending basically didn’t exist and most nations didn’t even have income taxes (the U.S. didn’t make that mistake until 1913).

And even as recently as 1960, welfare states were very small compared to their current size. Indeed, redistribution spending in western nations averaged only about 10 percent of economic output, about half the size of today’s supposedly miserly American welfare state.

These points are important because some folks on the left misinterpret Wagner’s Law and actually try to argue that bigger government is good for growth.

P.S. South Korea has been a great success story for the past five decades, but that redistribution trendline is very worrisome.

P.P.S. The trendline for Greece helps to explain why that nation is bankrupt.

P.P.P.S. The chart shows that Canada is better than the United States, though that may not last since Canada’s current Prime Minister is seeking to undermine his nation’s competitive advantage.

P.P.P.P.S. While fiscal trends in the western world have been unfavorable, that bad news has been offset by positive trends for trade liberalization. Whether we see a big step backwards because of Trump remains to be seen.

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