Tag: economic freedom

Two Lessons from the Tunisian Election

The victory of the secular party Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes) in the parliamentary election on Sunday carries two lessons for observers of transitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The first one is broadly optimistic, but the second one should be a cause for concern, heralding economic, social, and political troubles ahead.

1. The Arab Spring was not a one-way street to religious fundamentalism.

In spite of the unexpected and often violent turns that political events have taken in countries such as Syria or Libya, the revolutions across the MENA countries were not just thinly disguised attempts to impose theocratic rule on Arab societies. While Islam is an important cultural and social force, most people in the region have little appetite for a government by Islamist extremists. In fact, much of the headway that Islamist politicians made shortly after the fall of authoritarian regimes in the region can be explained by their track records as community organizers or providers of public services.

Tunisia is a case in point. Already in 2011, the country’s leading Islamic party, Ennahda, featured numerous women candidates in the election, and following a political crisis last year it negotiated a peaceful handover to a caretaker government that led the country to yesterday’s election.

Tunisia’s new leading political force, Nidaa Tounes, may have gained as many as 80 seats in the 217-seat parliament. It describes itself as a ‘modernist’ party. It unites secular politicians of various stripes, including labor union members, or former officials of the regime of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The leader of the party, the 87-year old Beji Caid el-Sebsi (who served as interim prime minister in 2011) had a long political career prior to the revolution, including an ambassadorship in Berlin after Ben Ali’s ascent to power.

2. Don’t expect radical economic reforms.

For those who feared that democratization in the MENA region could bring about theocracy and extremism, the status-quo nature of Nidaa Tounes is probably good news. At the same time, however, it seems unlikely that the party, whose sympathizers largely overlap with those of the country’s influential labor unions, will bring about the deep institutional and economic changes that Tunisia needs in order to extend access to economic opportunity to ordinary Tunisians by dismantling Byzantine red tape and corruption and freeing up its economy.

For example, while it is certainly praiseworthy that the party has promised to improve the economic situation of women, one should worry that it plans to do so by what are likely to be popular yet ineffective measures: creating a new government bureau fighting discrimination, investing in social housing for young female workers, and extending statutory maternity leave.

More importantly, in many areas the exact economic platform of Nidaa Tounes remains blurry. The party promises to foster consensus among the government, civil society, labor unions, and employers. It also promised to cut public spending – in part by reforming the system of fuel subsidies – increase industrial exports and promote industries with high value added, most notably hi-tech and renewable energy, and to subsidize economic development in poorer regions by an amount of 50 billion dinars ($28 billion) over the next five years, 30 billion of which would be coming from the public budget.

Heavy on clichés and light on specifics, these promises are reminiscent of electoral manifestos of social democratic parties of Europe. Regardless of whether that would be a good thing under normal circumstances, what Tunisia needs now is a bold agenda of economic liberalization, as well as a Leszek Balcerowicz-like figure to implement it. With a mushy economic program and Mahmoud Ben Romdhane – former deputy head of Tunisia’s ex-communist party, Ettajdid –as the key economic policy figure on the party, Nidaa Tounes offers neither.

Fragility of Tunisia’s Transition

The upcoming parliamentary election in Tunisia comes at a critical time. For a while, Tunisia was seen as a poster child for a successful transition away from authoritarianism. In Egypt, a widespread disappointment with an Islamic government resulted in a military coup last year. In contrast, when Tunisia could not get through a political impasse, the Islamic Ennahda party negotiated a handover to a caretaker government earlier this year, which has led the country to an early election.

Regardless of whether Ennahda can repeat its electoral success from three years ago or whether secular forces take over, the new Tunisian government will be in an unenviable position: it will have to address a growing security crisis in the country. In the past two years, the country has seen the emergence of political violence and terrorism perpetrated mostly by radical Salafist groups. Those violent efforts include the killings of two opposition politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, as well as a car bomb plot foiled just last week.

Tunisia has also become a fertile ground for the recruitment of fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS). Some estimate that over 2,400 ISIS fighters are from Tunisia, which would make Tunisians the most numerous nationality fighting for ISIS. Restoring basic security, order, and rule of law—and preventing the country from descending into a full-fledged internal conflict—will have to be a priority for the new government.

The political violence may have multiple roots, but Tunisia’s poor economic performance is clearly one of them. In recent years, many strikes and protests over economic conditions have taken a violent turn and led to attacks on local police stations, for example.

While the West is confronted with problems posed by aging populations, Tunisia, like other countries in the region, faces the challenge (and opportunity) of harnessing the economic potential of an extremely young workforce. Practically half of Tunisians are under the age of 30, and many of them are struggling. Although unemployment is slowly falling, the unemployment rate among university-educated young Tunisians is over 30 percent, making their situation precarious.

The U.S. Fall in Economic Freedom and the Rule of Law

The United States is the 12th  freest economy in the world according to the new Economic Freedom of the World report. Co-published today by Cato and the Fraser Institute, it finds a strong relationship between economic freedom and human well-being.

The U.S. ranking is part of a worrisome decline in economic freedom that began more than a decade ago. For decades, the United States ranked in second or third place on the index. In 2000 it was #2, yet by 2005 it ranked 8 and it continued its precipitous fall until recently. On a 0-10 scale, the U.S. rating is now 7.81 compared to 7.74 last year, a slight improvement. The level of economic freedom in the United States is lower today than it was in 1980. Since 2005, Canada has ranked higher than the United States.

The authors of the report note that the United States has fallen in all five areas that they measure: size of government; legal system and property rights; sound money; freedom to trade; and regulation. But the rule-of-law indicator (legal system and property rights) has seen the biggest decline and, as the graph shows, it has been enormous.

The U.S. Decline

The measured deterioration in the rule of law is consistent with scholarship in that field and, according to the report, is a result of “increased use of eminent domain to transfer property to powerful political interests, the ramifications of the wars on terrorism and drugs,” and other property rights violations. Because the rule of law is of course a cornerstone not just of economic freedom but of all freedoms, and because there is a strong relationship between economic freedom and other liberties (civil and political), all Americans should be concerned with the findings of the report.

A deterioration in the rule of law should also be of special concern to Hong Kong, the top ranked territory in the index, where recent protests highlight the danger that Beijing’s interference in its legal system, including the perception of such, poses to the overall freedoms and economic success of Hong Kong.

Why Did Western Nations Continue to Prosper in the 20th Century even though Fiscal Burdens Increased?

In the pre-World War I era, the fiscal burden of government was very modest in North America and Western Europe. Total government spending consumed only about 10 percent of economic output, most nations were free from the plague of the income tax, and the value-added tax hadn’t even been invented.

Today, by contrast, every major nation has an onerous income tax and the VAT is ubiquitous. Those punitive tax systems exist largely because—on average—the burden of government spending now consumes more than 40 percent of GDP.

historical-size-of-govt

To be blunt, fiscal policy has moved dramatically in the wrong direction over the past 100-plus years. And thanks to demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs, things are going to get much worse, according to Bank of International Settlements, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and International Monetary Fund projections.

While those numbers, both past and future, are a bit depressing, they also present a challenge to advocates of small government. If taxes and spending are bad for growth, why did the United States (and other nations in the Western world) enjoy considerable prosperity all through the 20th century? I sometimes get asked that question after speeches or panel discussions on fiscal policy. In some cases, the person making the inquiry is genuinely curious. In other cases, it’s a leftist asking a “gotcha” question.

Long-Run GDP

I’ve generally had two responses.

Immigration Does Not Decrease Economic Freedom

A common criticism of immigration reform (here, here, and here) is that it will decrease economic freedom in the United States, by increasing the voting pool for the Democratic Party.  Leaving aside the issue of which party supports economic liberty, if any, it’s important to see what the actual impacts of immigration are on economic freedom in the United States and the world.  The political effects of immigrants after they arrive are less certain than the economic benefits.  Do immigrants decrease economic freedom in their new countries?  The bottom line: fears of immigrants decreasing economic freedom seem unfounded.

Since 1980, wealthy countries have seen rises in immigrant populations.  Immigrants are drawn to economic prosperity, higher wages, and better standards of living so it’s not surprising that wealthier countries have higher percentages of immigrants.  I excluded numerous small countries and petro-states like the UAE and Kuwait from the analysis.

I looked at the 25 wealthiest nations in the world in 1980 (by per capita GDP PPP) and considered their economic freedom rating and the percent foreign born.  I then tracked those same countries every 5 years until 2010.  Here are the averages for all 25 nations:

Do Free Markets Tend Toward Concentration? The Case of Banking

Perhaps the most significant difference between my own views and those of my progressive friends is on the relationship between business and government, especially “big business”. I’ve on more than one occasion heard that government needs to be there to off-set the power of big business. That without government, corporations would just continue to grow. Well to me that sounds like an empirical question.

Thanks to the Economic Freedom of the World report, we have some good indicators of just how free-market oriented a country is. What we need are measures of concentration. Unfortunately, these are a little harder to come by. Fortunately, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) did a survey about a decade ago (1999), the data for which are reported in Barth, Caprio, and Levine’s Rethinking Bank Regulation. The measure of concentration is the percent of deposits accounted for by the five largest banks. One could argue for a better measure, but it’s all we have.

The results? It would appear that the freer an economy, the less concentrated its banking system. The chart below offers a scatter diagram, along with a regression line. The vertical Y axis measures concentration and the X axis economic freedom (the higher the number, the freer the economy). Admittedly, the relationship is not a strong one, with a correlation of only -0.11, but it is negative. If anyone knows of comparable measures for other industries, I would encourage them to either send me the data or reproduce this analysis for other industries.

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