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Posts Tagged ‘Welfare State’

When I argue with my statist friends about the proper size and scope of government, they accuse me of not wanting public services.

My typical response is to explain that I am a strong supporter of markets as the method to get high-quality roads, schools, and healthcare.

But I’m wondering whether this answer pays too much attention to the trees and doesn’t focus on the forest.

After all, the debate isn’t whether we should be Liberland or Venezuela. It’s whether government should be bigger or smaller compared to what we have now.

So the next time I tussle with my left-leaning buddies, I’m going to share this chart (based on data from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database) and ask them why we can’t be like the fast-growing, small-government nations of Asia.

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To elaborate, not only do jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore enjoy impressive growth, they also get very high scores for infrastructure, education, and health outcomes.

In other words, these nations are role models for “public sector efficiency.”

What they don’t have, by contrast, are expensive welfare states that seem to be correlated with poor outcome for basic public services.

For all intents and purposes, I want to focus the debate on how much government is necessary to get the things people want, sort of like I did in Paris back in 2013.

I asked the audience whether they thought that their government, which consumes 57 percent of GDP, gives them better services than Germany’s government, which consumes 45 percent of GDP. They said no. I then asked if they got better government than citizens of Canada, where government consumes 41 percent of GDP. They said no. And I concluded by asking them whether they got better government than the people of Switzerland, where government is only 34 percent of economic output… Once again, they said no.

I assume (hope) Americans also would say no given these choices. And hopefully they would say yes when asked if we should be like Hong Kong and Singapore.

P.S. If I rotated the above chart clockwise by 90 degrees we’d have a pretty good approximation of the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve.

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My favorite publication every year is Economic Freedom of the World.

It’s filled with data on fiscal policy, regulatory policy, trade policy, monetary policy, and quality of governance for 162 jurisdictions, and it provides an unbiased way of gauging the degree to which they allow economic liberty.

It also allows readers to slice and dice data, which is very helpful for doing analysis.

For instance, as illustrated by this 2×2 matrix, I claimed in 2016 that nations with small fiscal burdens aren’t necessarily pro-free market (meaning they would belong in the top-right quadrant) and countries with large fiscal burdens aren’t necessarily in favor of intervention and planning (so they would belong in the lower-left quadrant).

But that matrix was speculative.

Which is why I downloaded the EFW dataset. I then removed the fiscal policy variable and created new rankings so I could see which nations relied most on unfettered markets.

As you can see, Singapore barely edges out Hong Kong for first place in this “Laissez-Faire Index,” with New Zealand in third place. In other words, the top three nations in the overall EFW rankings stay the same, though Hong Kong and Singapore trade places (in the far-right column, I compare each nation’s rank to its EFW score for overall economic liberty).

The most dramatic results are for some of the welfare states in Northern and Western Europe. Denmark jumps 12 spots to #4 and the Netherlands soars 18 spots to #5. Other nations with big increases include Finland (up 14 spots to #8), Luxembourg (the world’s freest economy as recently as 1985, moves up 14 spots to #11), Sweden (up 30 spots to #13), Norway (up 11 spots to #14), and Belgium (up 32 spots to #20).

Looking at this list, it’s easy to understand why the combination of big government and free markets is sometimes called the “Nordic Model” (defined by Wikipedia as “a comprehensive welfare state…on the economic foundations of free market capitalism”).

And Japan could be considered an honorary member since it jumps 22 spots in the Laissez-Faire Index, up to #19.

I’ve argued that such nations compensate for the damage of high taxes and big welfare states by being very market-oriented in other ways. And the EFW data supports that assertion.

Though it’s worth noting that their large fiscal burdens do have a negative impact.

P.S. Looking at other nations in the Laissez-Faire Index, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada all remain in the top 10, though the United States falls six spots to #12. Georgia, Mauritius, Taiwan, and Lithuania all drop by double-digit amounts.

P.P.S. I did a version of the Laissez-Faire Index in 2015.

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One of the more elementary observations about economics is that a nation’s prosperity is determined in part by the quantity of quality of labor and capital. These “factors of production” are combined to generate national income.

I frequently grouse that punitive tax policies discourage capital. There’s less incentive to invest, after all, if the government imposes extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested.

Bad tax laws also discourage labor. High marginal tax rates penalize people for being productive, and this can be especially counterproductive for entrepreneurship and innovation.

Though we shouldn’t overlook how government discourages low-income people from being productively employed. Only the problem is more on the spending side of the fiscal equation.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, John Early and Phil Gramm share some depressing numbers about growing dependency in the United States.

During the 20 years before the War on Poverty was funded, the portion of the nation living in poverty had dropped to 14.7% from 32.1%. Since 1966, the first year with a significant increase in antipoverty spending, the poverty rate reported by the Census Bureau has been virtually unchanged. …Transfers targeted to low-income families increased in real dollars from an average of $3,070 per person in 1965 to $34,093 in 2016. …Transfers now constitute 84.2% of the disposable income of the poorest quintile of American households and 57.8% of the disposable income of lower-middle-income households. These payments also make up 27.5% of America’s total disposable income.

This massive expansion of redistribution has negatively impacted incentives to work.

The stated goal of the War on Poverty is not just to raise living standards, but also to make America’s poor more self-sufficient and to bring them into the mainstream of the economy. In that effort the war has been an abject failure, increasing dependency and largely severing the bottom fifth of earners from the rewards and responsibilities of work. …The expanding availability of antipoverty transfers has devastated the work effort of poor and lower-middle income families. By 1975 the lowest-earning fifth of families had 24.8% more families with a prime-work age head and no one working than did their middle-income peers. By 2015 this differential had risen to 37.1%. …The War on Poverty has increased dependency and failed in its primary effort to bring poor people into the mainstream of America’s economy and communal life. Government programs replaced deprivation with idleness, stifling human flourishing. It happened just as President Franklin Roosevelt said it would: “The lessons of history,” he said in 1935, “show conclusively that continued dependency upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber.”

In another WSJ column on the same topic, Peter Cove reached a similar conclusion.

America doesn’t have a worker shortage; it has a work shortage. The unemployment rate is at a 15-year low, but only 55% of Americans adults 18 to 64 have full-time jobs. Nearly 95 million people have removed themselves entirely from the job market. According to demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, the labor-force participation rate for men 25 to 54 is lower now than it was at the end of the Great Depression. The welfare state is largely to blame. …insisting on work in exchange for social benefits would succeed in reducing dependency. We have the data: Within 10 years of the 1996 reform, the number of Americans in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program fell 60%. But no reform is permanent. Under President Obama, federal poverty programs ballooned.

Edward Glaeser produced a similar indictment in an article for City Journal.

In 1967, 95 percent of “prime-age” men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. During the Great Recession, though, the share of jobless prime-age males rose above 20 percent. Even today, long after the recession officially ended, more than 15 percent of such men aren’t working. …The rise of joblessness—especially among men—is the great American domestic crisis of the twenty-first century. It is a crisis of spirit more than of resources. …Proposed solutions that focus solely on providing material benefits are a false path. Well-meaning social policies—from longer unemployment insurance to more generous disability diagnoses to higher minimum wages—have only worsened the problem; the futility of joblessness won’t be solved with a welfare check. …various programs make joblessness more bearable, at least materially; they also reduce the incentives to find work. …The past decade or so has seen a resurgent progressive focus on inequality—and little concern among progressives about the downsides of discouraging work. …The decision to prioritize equality over employment is particularly puzzling, given that social scientists have repeatedly found that unemployment is the greater evil.

Why work, though, when government pays you not to work?

And that unfortunate cost-benefit analysis is being driven by ever-greater levels of dependency.

Writing for Forbes, Professor Jeffrey Dorfman echoed these findings.

…our current welfare system fails to prepare people to take care of themselves, makes poor people more financially fragile, and creates incentives to remain on welfare forever. …The first failure of government welfare programs is to favor help with current consumption while placing almost no emphasis on job training or anything else that might allow today’s poor people to become self-sufficient in the future. …It is the classic story of giving a man a fish or teaching him how to fish. Government welfare programs hand out lots of fish, but never seem to teach people how to fish for themselves. The problem is not a lack of job training programs, but rather the fact that the job training programs fail to help people. …The third flaw in the government welfare system is the way that benefits phase outs as a recipient’s income increases. …a poor family trying to escape poverty pays an effective marginal tax rate that is considerably higher than a middle class family and higher than or roughly equal to the marginal tax rate of a family in the top one percent.

I like that he also addressed problems such as implicit marginal tax rates and the failure of job-training programs.

Professor Lee Ohanian of the Hoover Institution reinforces the point that the welfare state provides lots of money in ways that stifle personal initiative.

Inequality is not an issue that policy should address. …Society, however, should care about creating economic opportunities for the lowest earners. …a family of four at the poverty level has about $22,300 per year of pre-tax income. Consumption for that same family of four on average, however, is about $44,000 per year, which means that their consumption level is about twice as high as their income. …We’re certainly providing many more resources to low-earning families today. But on the other hand, we have policies in place that either limit economic opportunities for low earners or distort the incentives for those earners to achieve prosperity.

I’ve been citing lots of articles, which might be tedious, so let’s take a break with a video about the welfare state from the American Enterprise Institute.

And if you like videos, here’s my favorite video about the adverse effects of the welfare state.

By the way, it isn’t just libertarians and conservatives who recognize the problem.

Coming from a left-of-center perspective, Catherine Rampell explains in the Washington Post how welfare programs discourage work.

…today’s social safety net discourages poor people from working, or at least from earning more money. …you might qualify for some welfare programs, such as food stamps, housing vouchers, child-care subsidies and Medicaid. But if you get a promotion, or longer hours, or a second job, or otherwise start making more, these benefits will start to evaporate — and sometimes quite abruptly. You can think about this loss of benefits as a kind of extra tax on low-income people. …Americans at or just above the poverty line typically face marginal tax rates of 34 percent. That is, for every additional dollar they earn, they keep only 66 cents. …One in 10 families with earnings close to the poverty line faces a marginal tax rate of at least 65 percent, the CBO found. …You don’t need to be a hardcore conservative to see how this system might make working longer hours, or getting a better job, less attractive than it might otherwise be.

To understand what this means, the Illinois Policy Institute calculated how poor people in the state are trapped in dependency.

The potential sum of welfare benefits can reach $47,894 annually for single-parent households and $41,237 for two-parent households. Welfare benefits will be available to some households earning as much as $74,880 annually. …A single mom has the most resources available to her family when she works full time at a wage of $8.25 to $12 an hour. Disturbingly, taking a pay increase to $18 an hour can leave her with about one-third fewer total resources (net income and government benefits). In order to make work “pay” again, she would need an hourly wage of $38 to mitigate the impact of lost benefits and higher taxes.

Agreeing that there’s a problem does not imply agreement about a solution.

Folks on the left think the solution to high implicit tax rates (i.e., the dependency trap) is to make benefits more widely available. In other words, don’t reduce handouts as income increases.

The other alternative is to make benefits less generous, which will simultaneously reduce implicit tax rates and encourage more work.

I’m sympathetic to the latter approach, but my view is that welfare programs should be designed and financed by state and local governments. We’re far more likely to see innovation as policy makers in different areas experiment with the best ways of preventing serious deprivation while also encouraging self-sufficiency.

I think we’ll find out that benefits should be lower, but maybe we’ll learn in certain cases that benefits should be expanded. But we won’t learn anything so long as there is a one-size-fits-all approach from Washington.

Let’s close with a political observation. A columnist for the New York Times is frustrated that many low-income voters are supporting Republicans because they see how their neighbors are being harmed by dependency.

Parts of the country that depend on the safety-net programs supported by Democrats are increasingly voting for Republicans who favor shredding that net. …The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder — the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns. …I’ve heard variations on this theme all over the country: people railing against the guy across the street who is collecting disability payments but is well enough to go fishing, the families using their food assistance to indulge in steaks.

It’s not my role to pontificate about politics, so I won’t address that part of the column. But I will say that I’ve also found that hostility to welfare is strongest among those who have first-hand knowledge of how dependency hurts people.

P.S. If you want evidence for why Washington should get out of the business of income redistribution, check out this visual depiction of the welfare state.

P.S. The Canadians can teach us some good lessons about welfare reform.

P.P.S. The Nordic nations also provide valuable lessons, at least from the don’t-do-this perspective.

P.P.P.S. Last but not least, there’s a Laffer-type relationship between welfare spending and poverty.

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Paul Krugman has butchered numbers when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as France, Estonia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Today, we’re going to peruse his writings on Denmark.

Here’s some of what he wrote earlier this month.

Denmark can teach us…about the possibilities of creating a decent society. …Denmark, where tax receipts are 46 percent of GDP compared with 26 percent in the U.S., is arguably the most social-democratic country in the world. According to conservative doctrine, the combination of high taxes and aid to “takers” must really destroy incentives both to create jobs and to take them in any case. …what Denmark shows is that you can run a welfare state far more generous than we do – beyond the wildest dreams of U.S. progressives – and still have a highly successful economy. Indeed, while GDP per capita in Denmark is lower than in the U.S. – basically because of shorter work hours.

And here’s what he wrote a couple of days ago.

American politics has been dominated by a crusade against big government; Denmark has embraced an expansive government role, with public spending more than half of G.D.P. American politicians fear talk about redistribution of income from the rich to the less well-off; Denmark engages in such redistribution on a scale unimaginable here. …Conservative ideology says that Denmark’s policy choices should be disastrous, that grass should be growing in the streets of Copenhagen. …But if Denmark is a hellhole, it’s doing a very good job of hiding that fact: I was just there, and it looks awfully prosperous. …The simple fact is that life is better for most Danes than it is for their U.S. counterparts.

Interestingly, Krugman acknowledges that Denmark isn’t really socialist. Instead, it simply has a big welfare state.

But is Denmark socialist? …Denmark doesn’t at all fit the classic definition of socialism, which involves government ownership of the means of production. It is, instead, social-democratic: a market economy where the downsides of capitalism are mitigated by government action, including a very strong social safety net. …The simple fact is that there is far more misery in America than there needs to be. Every other advanced country has universal health care and a much stronger social safety net than we do.

He thinks that is a good thing, of course, and was making the same argument (using the same headline) in 2015.

…the Danes get a lot of things right, and in so doing refute just about everything U.S. conservatives say about economics. …Denmark maintains a welfare state — a set of government programs designed to provide economic security — that is beyond the wildest dreams of American liberals. …working-age families receive more than three times as much aid, as a share of G.D.P., as their U.S. counterparts. To pay for these programs, Denmark collects a lot of taxes. …Overall, Denmark’s tax take is almost half of national income, compared with 25 percent in the United States. …It’s hard to imagine a better refutation of anti-tax, anti-government economic doctrine, which insists that a system like Denmark’s would be completely unworkable.

As far as I can tell, all his numbers about Denmark are accurate, but his analysis is wrong.

He wants readers to believe that the lesson from Denmark is that there are no adverse economic consequences when nations impose a big welfare state and high taxes.

But that’s not what Danish economic history tells us. As with other Nordic nations, Denmark became a rich nation when government was relatively small and taxes were modest.

And we know from historical data that economic performance significantly weakened after the fiscal burden of government was increased.

Moreover, lawmakers are now trying to restrain government spending.

The first thing to realize is that Denmark, as are the other Nordic countries, quite free markets, apart from their welfare state transfers and high government consumption. They tend to get rather high rankings on measures of the most free economies in the World. …Protection of property rights and the integrity of the legal system are very high by international standards, as is the soundness of the monetary system… Denmark has a long tradition for free trade… Credit markets are among the less regulated internationally. During the recent financial crisis, tax payers did not have to subsidize banks, and some banks were allowed to fail. The Danish labor market is very flexible: There is no legislated minimum wage, and there are few restrictions on hiring and firing.

Here’s the part that is a must-read.

Denmark did not become a rich country recently. …Danish per capita GDP relative to other countries reached a maximum 40-60 years ago… Denmark caught up to and overtook “old Europe” in the fifties, while it narrowed its gap to the US and other Western offsprings until the early 1970s, when the process of catching up came to a hold. …At the time Denmark became rich relative to the rest of the World, it was not a welfare state. In fact, Denmark has historically been a low tax country by international standards. Until the 1960s, the Danish tax revenue to GDP ratio was at the same level as the US, and lower than the British.

Unfortunately, policy veered in the wrong direction in the late 1960s, with very adverse consequences.

The sharp divergence in the Danish tax level really occurred in the second half of the 1960s, when first a left wing coalition government and then a right wing one increased the tax to GDP ratio by some ten percentage points. …government spending was to a large extent driven by increases in tax revenue stemming from the introduction of VAT and withholding taxes on wage income. …the welfare state attracted new clients and new programs were added, the economic crisis lead to increasing unemployment… By the early 1980s the economy was in very bad shape, with high unemployment, an inflationary deflation spiral, a huge and widening government deficit.

I can’t help but call your attention to Otto’s observation about how the VAT enabled a far larger burden of government.

But let’s not get sidetracked.

This chart shows how the tax burden in Denmark diverged from the United States.

So what’s the bottom line?

Denmark first became rich, and then introduced the programs, which make up the welfare state. The huge increase in government spending has been accompanied by deep structural problems, which has made it necessary to reform the Danish economy and welfare state ever since. It can hardly be claimed that introducing the welfare state made Denmark rich; rather it was the other way around. Denmark first became rich, and then authorities began to redistribute some of the wealth.

Amen. I made the same point back in 2011.

Writing for PJ Media, Tyler O’Neil reviews the good and bad in Denmark and also echoes Otto’s analysis.

A deeper look at the history and current affairs of Denmark and the surrounding countries tells a different story, however. These countries’ benefits arguably spring from their free-market pasts, not their brief dalliance with big government. …During the early 1900s and following the Great Depression, Scandinavia’s small government and free markets fostered a culture of hard work that paid huge dividends in terms of prosperity.

Unfortunately, starting about 50 years ago, Denmark (like many other nations in the region) adopted an expensive welfare state. With bad results.

…the 1960s – 1990s expansion of welfare states actually held the Nordic countries back. After their experiment with socialistic welfare states, “Nordic citizens now have unusually high levels of sickness absence (despite being healthy societies), high youth unemployment and a poor record for integrating migrants into the labour force,” Sanandaji explains. Big government has weakened the strong culture which enabled welfare states in the first place… In 2013, roughly 240,000 people — nine percent of the potential work force — were receiving disability checks, and about 33,500 of them were under 40.

I fully agree. Denmark’s welfare state has created a problem. Simply stated, there are too many people who depend on government compared to the number of taxpayers who finance government.

I sometimes use the example of how many people are pulling the wagon compared to the number of people riding in the wagon. The Danish version uses Viking ships.

Fortunately, now there’s an effort to move back in the right direction.

Denmark now outranks even the United States as a good place to do business. …In 2013, it reduced early-retirement plans, and cut the term for unemployment benefits from four years to two. …In recent years, all the Nordic countries have decreased their corporate tax rates — each one is lower than in the United States. They also support free trade, unlike American Socialists.

Let’s look at some specific examples of how Denmark is trying to undo the damage of excessive government.

Bloomberg reported last year about the ongoing effort to reduce the nation’s fiscal burden.

When a European government raises the pension age and makes cuts to welfare programs, it’s usually because of dire finances. In Denmark’s case, it’s because of ideology. …Driving the new government’s push is a desire to finance a major round of income tax cuts. “We want to promote a society in which it is easier to support yourself and your family before you hand over a large share of your income to fund the costs of society,” the government of Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen wrote in its manifesto. It’s all part of a Danish drift toward the political right… Reforms introduced by successive governments over the years have already ensured that Denmark’s expensive welfare state is sustainable for years to come, says Torben M. Andersen, a professor of economics at the University of Aarhus and a former government adviser. These include raising the retirement age to 67 years from 65 years by 2025.

Denmark is also cutting back on college subsidies.

As one of a handful of countries that offers free tuition to college students, Denmark grants students enormous freedom… But some Danes, especially older citizens already in the labor force, say the extra freedom can eliminate a crucial sense of urgency for 20-somethings to become adults. The country now deals with “eternity students” — people who stick around at college for six years or more without any plans of graduating, solely because they don’t have any financial incentive to leave. …The country has made some headway to counter eternity students. In 2015, the Danish government proposed and passed an amendment to the Study Progress Reform… Jakobsen said the amendment has definitely reduced the trend of eternity students.

Now let’s get to my contribution to this discussion.

A few years ago, I created a “statism spectrum” to show how countries differ when looking at total economic freedom (fiscal policy, trade policy, regulatory policy, monetary policy, and quality of governance).

And I pointed out that nations with onerous fiscal burdens can still rank relatively high if they have a very pro-market approach in other areas.

But I have to confess that my spectrum was a back-of-the-envelope exercise. I simply drew a line and then added six countries.

Time for some rigor. I downloaded the latest scores from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World and created this chart showing the relative ranking of all the countries (divided by category). As you can see, the United States and Denmark are both in the top category and they both have very similar levels of overall economic liberty.

And to put those numbers in context, here’s the same chart, but also showing France, Greece, and Venezuela.

In other words, there’s a lot to admire about Denmark. Yes, taxes are onerous and the burden of spending is still too high, but it’s nonetheless one of the most market-oriented countries in the world because of laissez-faire policies in other areas.

My bottom line is that Paul Krugman is right to praise Denmark.

My only gripe is that he likes the one thing that they’re doing wrong and overlooks all the things that make the country a relative success.

Moreover, he ignores all the recent efforts to reduce the fiscal burden of government, probably because that would require him to acknowledge that large public sectors are bad for growth.

P.S. Denmark is way ahead of the United States in its market-friendly, savings-based approach to retirement.

P.P.S. Denmark also ranks above America in protecting the right of private property.

P.P.P.S. But the United States does rank above Denmark when all policies are part of the equation, which presumably helps to explain why Americans are richer. And that also is probably why Danes in America earn a lot more than Danes in Denmark.

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Last September, I shared some very encouraging data showing how extreme poverty dramatically has declined in the developing world.

And I noted that this progress happened during a time when the “Washington Consensus” was resulting in “neoliberal” policies (meaning “classical liberal“) in those nations (confirmed by data from Economic Freedom of the World).

In other words, pro-market policies were the recipe for poverty reduction, not foreign aid or big government.

Sadly, the Washington Consensus has been supplanted. Bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are now pushing a statist agenda based on the bizarre theory that higher taxes and more spending somehow produce prosperity.

To add insult to injury, some people now want to rewrite history and argue that free markets don’t deserve credit for the poverty reduction that already has occurred.

Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, writing for Our World in Data, wants readers to conclude that redistribution programs deserve credit.

…the share of people living in extreme poverty around the world has fallen continuously over the last two centuries. …many often say that globalization in the form of ‘free-market capitalism’ is the main force to be thanked for such remarkable historical achievement. …this focus on ‘free-market capitalism’ alone is misguided. …Governments around the world have dramatically increased their potential to collect revenues in order to redistribute resources through social transfers… The reach of governments has grown substantially over the last century: the share of total output that governments control is much larger today than a century ago.

And for evidence, Mr. Ortiz-Ospina included this chart.

I shared a version of this data back in June, asserting that the explosion of social welfare spending made this “the western world’s most depressing chart.”

So does Ortiz-Ospina have a compelling argument? Does poverty go down as welfare spending goes up?

Nope. Johan Norberg points out that there is a gaping flaw in this argument. An enormous, gigantic hole.

Wow. This isn’t just a flaw. It’s malpractice. It’s absurd to argue that welfare spending in developed nations somehow led to poverty reduction in developing countries.

I hope Mr. Ortiz-Ospina is just an inexperienced intern, because if he really understands the data, one might be forced to conclude that he’s dishonest.

But let’s set that issue aside. Johan closes his video by explaining that poverty in rich nations declined before modern welfare states. I want to expand on that point.

Johan cited Martin Ravallion, so I tracked down his work. And here’s the chart he put together, which I’ve modified to show (outlined in red) that extreme poverty basically disappeared between 1820 and 1930.

And guess what?

That was the period when there was no welfare state. Not only is that apparent from Our World in Data, it’s also what we see in Vito Tanzi’s numbers.

Here’s Tanzi’s table, which I first shared five years ago. And I’ve circled in red the 1880-1930 data to underscore that there was virtually no redistribution during the years poverty was declining.

The bottom line is that poverty in the western world fell during the period of small government. Yet some people want to put the cart before the horse. They’re making the absurd argument that post-1950s welfare spending somehow reduced poverty before the 1930s.

That’s as absurd as Paul Krugman blaming a 2008 recession in Estonia on spending cuts that took place in 2009.

P.S. For those who want U.S.-specific data, it’s worth noting that dramatic reductions in American poverty all occurred before Washington launched the so-called “War on Poverty.”

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Last week, I shared very grim data, going all the way back to 1880, on the growth of the welfare state.

I even claimed that the accompanying graph was the “western world’s most depressing chart” because it showed the dramatic increase in the burden of government spending for redistribution programs.

And I didn’t even mention that the numbers likely will get even worse because of changing demographics.

Now it’s time for the western world’s second-most depressing chart. Like the first chart, the data for this second chart comes from “Our world in data,” only this time it shows the relentless and astounding (in a depressing way) expansion in tax burdens starting in 1868. It only shows four countries, but other western nations would show the same pattern.

What isn’t shown in this chart is that the tax burden used to be reasonable because governments generally did not have income taxes.

The United Kingdom was an early adopter, but France, Sweden, and the United States didn’t impose that onerous levy until the 1900s. And it’s no coincidence that the tax burden exploded once politicians learned to exploit that source of revenue.

An obvious lesson is that it is never a good idea to give politicians a new source of revenue. We see in the above chart what happened once nations imposed income taxes. We’ve also seen increases in fiscal burdens in nations that imposed value-added taxes (which is why Americans should fight to their dying breaths before allowing that levy in the United States).

From the perspective of politicians, they like new sources of revenue because that increases “tax capacity,” which is an Orwellian term that describes their ability to grab more money from the economy’s productive sector.

And here’s another chart from “Our world in data” showing how income taxes and VATs (along with income-tax withholding) have become ubiquitous.

Very depressing trends. Reminds me of the biased grading of tax regimes from the World Bank.

Let’s close with the tiny bit of good news from the website. Here’s a chart showing how top rates for the personal income tax dropped substantially between 1979 and 2002.

This happened, needless to say, because of tax competition. As globalization expanded, it became easier and easier for taxpayers to move themselves and/or their money from high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions.

Politicians thus were forced to lower tax rates so the geese with the golden eggs didn’t fly away.

Sadly, updated versions of this chart now show top tax rates heading in the wrong direction, in large part because tax havens have been weakened and politicians no longer feel as much competitive pressure.

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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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