Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Nobel-Like Prize-Winning Economist as Prose Stylist

Felix Salmon praises Milton Friedman's prose style:

RGE - Nobel Prizewinners in the WSJ: We saw on Friday what the 94-year-old Milton Friedman (Nobel Prize, 1976) is capable of when given space on the WSJ's op-ed pages: a model of simplicity and lucidity in 517 words....

Hong Kong Wrong - WSJ.com: By MILTON FRIEDMAN: 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. Assigned to handle Hong Kong's financial affairs in 1945, he rose through the ranks to become the territory's financial secretary from 1961-71. Cowperthwaite, who died on Jan. 21 this year, 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, even though Britain had experienced sizable growth over the same period. 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....

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.

Felix than laments that Ned Phelps's prose is not nearly as lucid. True. But Ned's thought is as deep and as worth paying attention to as Milton's.

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