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Friday, October 06, 2006

Milton Friedman: The End of the Hong Kong Experiment

Milton Friedman believes Hong Kong is taking a wrong turn (see "The Hong Kong Experiment" from Hoover Digest in 1998):

Hong Kong Wrong, by Milton Friedman, Commentary, WSJ: It had to happen. Hong Kong's policy of "positive noninterventionism" was too good to last. It went against all the instincts of government officials, paid to spend other people's money and meddle in other people's affairs. That's why it was sadly unsurprising to see Hong Kong's current leader, Donald Tsang, last month declare the death of the policy on which the territory's prosperity was built.

The really amazing phenomenon is that, for half a century, his predecessors resisted the temptation to tax and meddle. Though a colony of socialist Britain, Hong Kong followed a laissez-faire capitalist policy, thanks largely to a British civil servant, John Cowperthwaite. ... Cowperthwaite ... was so famously laissez-faire that he refused to collect economic statistics for fear this would only give government officials an excuse for more meddling. His successor, Sir Philip Haddon-Cave, coined the term "positive noninterventionism" to describe Cowperthwaite's approach.

The results of his policy were remarkable. At the end of World War II, Hong Kong was a dirt-poor island with a per-capita income about one-quarter that of Britain's. By 1997, when sovereignty was transferred to China, its per-capita income was roughly equal to that of the departing colonial power... That was a striking demonstration of the productivity of freedom, of what people can do when they are left free to pursue their own interests.

The success of laissez-faire in Hong Kong was a major factor in encouraging China and other countries to move away from centralized control toward greater reliance on private enterprise and the free market. As a result, they too have benefited from rapid economic growth. The ultimate fate of China depends, I believe, on whether it continues to move in Hong Kong's direction faster than Hong Kong moves in China's.

Mr. Tsang insists that he only wants the government to act "when there are obvious imperfections in the operation of the market mechanism." That ignores the reality that if there are any "obvious imperfections," the market will eliminate them long before Mr. Tsang gets around to it. Much more important are the "imperfections" -- obvious and not so obvious -- that will be introduced by overactive government.

A half-century of "positive noninterventionism" has made Hong Kong wealthy enough to absorb much abuse from ill-advised government intervention. Inertia alone should ensure that intervention remains limited. ... But, although the territory may continue to grow, it will no longer be such a shining symbol of economic freedom.

Yet that doesn't detract from the scale of Cowperthwaite's achievement. Whatever happens to Hong Kong in the future, the experience of this past 50 years will continue to instruct and encourage friends of economic freedom. And it provides a lasting model of good economic policy for others who wish to bring similar prosperity to their people.

    Posted by on Friday, October 6, 2006 at 12:09 AM in Economics, Policy, Regulation | Permalink  TrackBack (2)  Comments (34)


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