economic freedom

No Discernible Rise in Wellbeing? The Data Suggests Otherwise…

Economist Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University recently made this claim (emphasis mine):

“We’re so rich in our total production and in our capacities to do things that we could solve absolutely fundamental challenges, such as ending extreme poverty or addressing climate change or preserving biodiversity without much effort … it cannot be the most important issue in the world whether the U.S. grows at another 3% or 3.5% or 2.9% a year, when over the last 65 years there’s been no discernible rise in wellbeing

That is the theme of his new book, The Origins of Happiness.

By “we” Sachs appears to mean the U.S. and other rich countries and calls for their governments to engage in wealth transfers to poor countries and a plethora of environmental projects. What he does not seem to realize is that humanity is already making swift progress—through the free actions of billions of individuals—toward ending poverty and better preserving the environment.

Economic Freedom and Infants’ Lives

Recent reports that infants now die at a higher rate in Venezuela than in war-torn Syria were, sadly, unsurprising—the results of socialist economics are predictable. Venezuela’s infant mortality rate has actually been above Syria’s since 2008.

 

The big picture, fortunately, is happier. The global infant mortality rate has plummeted. Even Syria and Venezuela, despite the impact of war and failed policies, saw improvements up to as recently as last year. From 1960 to 2015, Syria’s infant mortality rate fell by 91% and Venezuela’s by 78%. This year (not reflected in the graph above or below), Syria’s rate rose from 11.1 per 1,000 live births to 15.4, while Venezuela’s shot up from 12.9 to 18.6. Meanwhile, infant mortality rates have continued to fall practically everywhere else, and have declined even faster in countries that enjoy more freedom and stability. Consider Chile.

In Africa, Institutions Matter More than Infrastructure

Washington Post article recently highlighted the impressive but uneven progress that Africa has made in its struggle against poverty. The article looked at questions pertaining to material wellbeing, including “the number of times that an average family had to go without basic necessities.” On that measure, Cape Verde saw the most rapid improvement. And so the article asks, “What did Cape Verde do right?” 

Cape Verde’s superior infrastructure, the Washington Post explains, is partly responsible for that country’s economic progress. Surely that cannot be the full answer. The United States did not have an interstate road network till the Eisenhower Administration – decades after the United States became the richest and most powerful country in the world. Similarly, Germany was the most powerful and richest country in Europe a long time before constructing its famous autobahns. 
  
In fact, it is Cape Verde’s policies and institutions that we should look to as reasons for that country’s superior performance relative to, say, Liberia, where poverty increased the most – according to the Washington Post. According to the Center for Systemic Peace, Cape Verde is a democracy. Liberia, in contrast, is far behind.

Poverty’s Decline and Its Causes

It is always refreshing to see journalists draw attention to the incredible decline in world poverty. An article that did just that appeared yesterday in the Christian Science Monitor. The piece shines a spotlight on three heartening facts in particular. 

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.

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.

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.

Subscribe to RSS - economic freedom