Policy Analysis No. 725

Asia’s Story of Growing Economic Freedom

The global financial crisis reinforced a sense that the world is "shifting East"—to Asia. The essential story of modern Asia is its unprecedented expansion of economic freedom, enabled by market liberalization. Economic freedom, however, remains substantially repressed across the region.

There are three key policy challenges to expanding economic freedom in Asia today. The first is to open up financial markets, which remain backward and repressed by command economy controls. The second is to renew trade and foreign-investment liberalization, which has stalled since the Asian crisis of the late 1990s. And the third is to open up energy markets, which, even more than financial markets, are throttled by government interventions.

Increasing Asian consumption of fossil fuels will increase carbon emissions. Mainstream advocacy of carbon reduction in Asia should be met with skepticism, given its potential to lower growth substantially. A far better approach is one based on adaptation to global warming through market-based efficiency measures.

Asia’s poorer economies should concentrate on "getting the basics right" for "catch-up" growth. These are "first-generation" reforms of macroeconomic stabilization and market liberalization. Asia’s middle- and high-income economies need to focus also on "second-generation" reforms—more complex structural and institutional reforms to boost competition and innovation. Diverse political systems can deliver catch up growth. But autocracies are badly fitted to deliver second-generation reforms for productivity- led growth. The latter demands a tighter link between political and economic freedoms.

The Asian miracle is not the product of superior technocratic minds who concocted successful industrial policies. Rather, freedom and prosperity bloomed on Asian soil because government interventions were curtailed and markets unleashed. Classical liberalism, however partially implemented, has worked in Asia. It is a system to which Asians should aspire.

Razeen Sally is a visiting associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and the director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels. He was on the faculty of the London School of Economics for 18 years.