Tag: free markets

The Miracle of Modern-Day Prosperity…and the Ideas and Policies that Made it Happen

Why are some nations rich and other nations poor? What has enabled some nations to escape poverty while others continue to languish?

And if we want to help poor nations prosper, what’s the right recipe?

Since I’m a public finance economist, I’m tempted to say a flat tax and small government are an elixir for prosperity, but those policies are just one piece of a bigger puzzle.

A country also needs sensible monetary policy, open trade, modest regulation, and rule of law. In other words, you need small government AND free markets.

But even that doesn’t really tell us what causes growth.

In the past, I’ve highlighted the importance of capital formation and shared a remarkable chart showing how workers earn more when the capital stock is larger (which is why we should avoid punitive double taxation of income that is saved and invested).

But that also doesn’t really answer the question. After all, if a larger capital stock was all that mattered, doesn’t that imply that we could get prosperity if government simply mandated more saving and investing?

There’s something else that’s necessary. Something perhaps intangible, but critically important.

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.


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.

Bill Gates and the Ancient Alexandrian Party Favor

Every year, Microsoft founder Bill Gates drafts a letter charting the course for the foundation he created with his wife, Melinda. This year, the focus is on the value of precise measurement in driving innovation and progress. His inspiration was the book The Most Powerful Idea in the World, “a brilliant chronicle by William Rosen of the many innovations it took to harness steam power.”

Certainly mensuration was important to the development of the steam engine, but there was a much more crucial ingredient, and unless we understand the role that it played, solutions to the world’s most pernicious problems will remain elusive. The key to grasping this missing ingredient is the aeolipile. As shown in the accompanying video, the aeolipile is a hollow metal reservoir with multiple radial “exhaust pipes,” all of whose spouts point off tangentially from the hub. To make it work, you simply suspend it, fill it with water, and light a candle under it. And… Voila! You’ve harnessed steam power to generate rotary motion.

This device is also known as Hero’s Engine, after Hero of Alexandria—who invented it over two thousand years ago…. Despite its seemingly obvious practical applications, Hero’s Engine was never more than a party favor. It had not the slightest impact on the course of human history. Why not?

The ultimate causes are contentious (Deirdre McCloskey will give you one answer), but the proximate one is obvious: the aeolipile was never commercialized. There wasn’t a sufficient network of entrepreneurs and investors toiling away in ancient Alexandria to relentlessly seek out, capitalize, and commercialize new technologies and innovations. The steam engine was refined and widely deployed during the Industrial Revolution only because such an entrepreneurial network had come into existence by the late 18th century, first in England and soon thereafter, elsewhere.

And that’s the real key to massively disseminating the benefits of innovation: enlisting the assistance of the free enterprise system. It is not a coincidence that the productivity of elementary and secondary education has collapsed while productivity in virtually every other field has steadily improved. Education has been largely excluded from the free enterprise system for the past 150 years.

So, while precise measurement certainly has its role to play, I hope someday to read an annual letter from Bill Gates that focuses on the need to harness all the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace for the betterment of education the world over.

ObamaCare Is Pro-Market Like the Berlin Wall Was Pro-Migrant

Today’s New York Times features an opinion piece by J.D. Kleinke of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Kleinke’s thesis is that ObamaCare’s conservative opponents should stop complaining. “ObamaCare is based on conservative, not liberal, ideas.”

If one defines conservative ideas as those that emphasize free markets and personal responsibility, there is zero truth to this claim.

  • Free markets require freedom, like the freedom to control your own property, to enter markets, and to negotiate prices and other contractual terms. ObamaCare mandates how people must dispose of their property, imposes tremendous barriers to entry into markets, and imposes price controls and myriad other terms on ostensibly private contracts.
  • Market prices are the lifeblood of a market economy. Kleinke considers them a “flaw” that ObamaCare uses “market principles” to “correct.”
  • As I have written elsewhere, ObamaCare “promotes irresponsibility by allowing healthy people to wait until they get sick to buy coverage. It creates that free-rider problem, which has been known to make insurance markets collapse. Supporters of the law could have taken personal responsibility for this instability they introduced into the market—say, by volunteering to pay the free riders’ premiums. Instead, they imposed a mandate, which attempts to stabilize the market by depriving others of their money and freedom. Forcing others to bear the costs of your decisions is the opposite of personal responsibility.”
  • Employers are hardly “free to decide” under a law that penalizes them for not offering government-designed health benefits.
  • Kleinke is apparently unaware that half of the $2 trillion of new government spending in this “pro-market” law comes from a massive expansion of a tax-financed, government-run health insurance program that crowds out private markets – Medicaid.

I could go on.

Even if one adopts the more forgiving definition that conservative ideas are whatever ideas conservatives advocate, there still isn’t enough truth to sustain Kleinke’s point. Yes, the conservative Heritage Foundation trumpeted ObamaCare’s regulatory scheme from 1989 until around the time a Democratic president endorsed it. But as National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru writes, accurately, “The think tankers were divided, with the Heritage Foundation an outlier. It was an outlier, too, in the broader right-of-center intellectual world.” Kleinke even flubs the paternity of the individual mandate, which he says is “an idea forged not by liberal social engineers at Brookings but conservative economists at the Heritage Foundation.” In fact, the idea originated with Randall Bovbjerg of the left-wing Urban Institute.

Kleinke has done insightful work. This oped is just nutty, and emblematic of the lack of intellectual rigor among the Church of Universal Coverage members residing in both left-wing and right-wing think tanks.

The GOP’s Big Government Baggage

Brian Myrick / AP file

The Republican National Convention is just days away, so it’s relevant to point out that the longer big-government interventionists are associated with the GOP, the more terms like “limited government” and “free markets” will lose all meaning. One Republican who epitomizes the damage of this guilt by association is former Vice President Dick Cheney. He won’t be at the convention, but his message surely will be.Below are two arguments put forward by Cheney, the first about Iraq in 2002, the second about Iran in 2007:

Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop ten percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.

And on Iran:

There is no reason in the world why Iran needs to continue to pursue nuclear weapons. But if you look down the road a few years and speculate about the possibility of a nuclear armed Iran, astride the world’s supply of oil, able to affect adversely the global economy, prepared to use terrorist organizations and/or their nuclear weapons to threaten their neighbors and others around the world, that’s a very serious prospect. And it’s important that not happen.

What is so remarkable about this vision proffered by Cheney is how it fails to elucidate precisely how either country threatens America’s interests or economic well-being. If one were to challenge the validity of Cheney’s claims, questions would include:

  • What is the likelihood of such a hypothetical disruption?
  • What is the harm if America’s access to markets is closed, and for how long?
  • How would the perpetrators of the closure be affected?
  • How has America dealt with such disruptions in the past?
  • Would there be available alternatives?
  • And, most importantly, would the risks to America’s interests and economic well-being be worse if it took preventive action?

Cheney evokes the imagery of America spreading stability and peace, while his world view relies on aggressive militarism that destroys both. What is particularly appalling is his implication that the United States must protect “the world’s energy supplies” and “the world’s supply of oil.” Chris Preble has drawn on a rich body of literature that shows why such claims do not withstand scrutiny.

Remarkably, Cheney represents a Republican constituency supportive of free markets, and yet his world view contradicts basic free trade and free market principles. He believes that free markets thrive only when peace and stability are provided by the U.S. government—and there’s the rub.

Rather than a world of economic exchange free of the state and its interventions, government must enforce global order for free trade to occur. Cheney’s vision of free markets impels American expansion.

At its heart—and far from free market—the former vice president’s world view fulfills a radical interpretation of U.S. foreign policy. Cheney gives new life to the works of revisionist historians like William Appleman Williams, by propagating the pernicious notion that U.S. intervention abroad is required to control the flow of raw materials and protect America’s wealth and power.

International Data on Living Standards Show that the United States Should Not Become More Like Europe

I’m not a big fan on international bureaucracies, particularly the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD, funded by American tax dollars, has become infamous for its support of statist pro-Obama policies.

But I’m a policy wonk, so I’ll admit that I often utilize certain OECD’s statistics. After all, if numbers from a left-wing organization help to advance the cause of liberty, that makes it harder for opponents to counter our arguments.

With that being said, let’s look at some truly remarkable statistics from the OECD website on comparative living standards in industrialized nations. This chart shows average levels of individual consumption (AIC) for 31 OECD countries. There are several possible measures of prosperity, including per-capita GDP. All are useful, but AIC is thought to best capture the well-being of a people.

As you can see from this chart, the United States ranks far ahead of other nations. The only countries that are even close are Norway, which is a special case because of oil wealth, and Luxembourg, which also is an outlier because it is a tiny nation that also serves as a tax haven (a very admirable policy, to be sure).

At the risk of making an understatement, this data screams, “THE U.S. SHOULD NOT BECOME MORE LIKE EUROPE.”

For all intents and purposes, Americans are about 40 percent better off than their European counterparts, in part because we have less government and more economic freedom.

Yet Obama, with his plans to exacerbate class-warfare taxation and further expand the burden of government spending, wants America to be more like nations that have lower living standards.

And don’t forget European living standards will presumably fall even further - relative to the U.S. - as the fiscal crisis in nations such as Greece, Spain, and Italy spreads to other welfare states such as France and Belgium

Here’s another chart that looks at the G-7 nations. Once again, the gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world is remarkable.

Maybe, just maybe, the United States should try to copy nations that are doing better, not ones that are doing worse. Hong Kong and Singapore come to mind.

Getting there is simple. Just reduce the size and scope of government.

In Tallinn, Helping to Protect the People of Estonia from Krugmanomics

Last month, I exposed some major errors that Paul Krugman committed when he criticized Estonia for restraining the burden of government spending.

My analysis will be helpful since I am now in Estonia for a speech about economic reform, and I wrote a column that was published today by the nation’s main business newspaper.

But just in case you’re one of the few people in the world who isn’t fluent in the local language, the Mises Institute Estonia was kind enough to post an English version.

Here are some of the key points I made. I started by explaining one of Krugman’s main blunders.

Krugman’s biggest mistake is that he claimed that spending cuts caused the downturn, even though the recession began in 2008 when government spending was rapidly expanding. It wasn’t until 2009 that the burden of government spending was reduced, and that was when the economy began to grow again. In other words, Krugman’s Keynesian theory was completely wrong. The economy should have boomed in 2008 and suffered a recession beginning in 2009. Instead, the opposite has happened.

I then pointed out that Estonia’s long-run performance has been admirable.

…the nation’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. Economic output has doubled in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period – including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

But I’m not a mindless cheerleader (though I might become one if any of the local women gave me the time of day), so I took the opportunity to identify areas where public policy needs improvement.

This doesn’t mean Estonia’s policy is perfect. Spending was reduced in 2009 and 2010, but now it is climbing again. This is unfortunate. Government spending consumes about 40 percent of GDP, which is a significant burden on the private sector.

Being a thoughtful guy, I then made suggestions for pro-growth changes.

Estonia should copy the Asian Tiger economies of Singapore and Hong Kong. These jurisdictions have maintained very high growth for decades in part because the burden of the public sector is only about 20 percent of GDP. …Estonia already has a flat tax, which is very important for competitiveness. The key goal should be to impose a spending cap, perhaps similar to Switzerland’s very successful “debt brake.” Under the Swiss system, government spending is not allowed to grow faster than population plus inflation. And since nominal GDP usually expands at a faster rate, this means that the relative burden of government spending shrinks over time. By slowly but surely reducing the amount of GDP diverted to fund government, this would enable policymakers to deal with the one area where Estonia’s tax system is very unfriendly. Social insurance taxes equal about one-fourth of the cost of hiring a worker, thus discouraging job creation and boosting the shadow economy.

And I elaborated on why reform of social insurance is not just a good idea, but should be viewed as an absolute necessity.

Reducing the heavy burden of social insurance taxes should be part of a big reform to modernize programs for healthcare and the elderly. A major long-term challenge for Estonia is that the population is expected to shrink. The World Bank and the United Nations both show that fertility rates are well below the “replacement rate,” meaning that there will be fewer workers in the future. That’s a very compelling reason why it is important to expand personal retirement accounts and allow the “pre-funding” of healthcare. It’s a simple matter of demographic reality.

In other words, Estonia doesn’t have a choice. If they don’t reform their entitlement programs, the burden of government spending will rise dramatically, which would mean a higher tax burden and/or substantial government debt.

We also need entitlement reform in the United States. Our demographics aren’t as bad as Estonia’s, but we all know - as I explained in my post about Cyprus - that bad things happen sooner or later if government spending grows faster than the economy’s productive sector.