Architect of prosperity

As President Xi visits Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of the 1997 handover from the UK, he might do well to reflect on the name of Sir John Cowperthwaite and what this quiet British civil servant did to make the former colony so prosperous. Which was largely leave the people to their own devices.

After the turmoil of the second world war, Hong Kong was called ‘the barren island’. It had few natural resources, its trade and infrastructure had been ruined, its income was a third of Britain’s. Now it is a world trading hub, its airport handling 60m passengers a year, its skyline soaring ever higher, its goods going all over the world, its per capita income now 40% more than Britain’s.

Part of the reason for that is that the small cadre of civil servants, like Sir John, whose job it was to run Hong Kong, fixed on the objective of making it economically prosperous, and knew that the best way to do that was to do exactly the opposite of what the home country was doing—with its nationalisations, controls, economic planning, high taxes, trade barriers, deficit spending, and all the rest. The Hong Kong administrators by contrast rejected the idea of government planning and spending to invest, believing that entrepreneurs knew how and where to invest, and how to manage their businesses, better than any government officials. They kept the government’s books balanced for nearly every year; they resisted high taxes, believing that low taxes would encourage private investment and would expand the long-term tax base.

Cowperthwaite was the most important person behind these policies, as a new book by Neil Monnery, Architect of Prosperity, demonstrates. He ran the trade and industry department after the war then became financial secretary in Hong Kong—effectively the colony’s Chancellor—until he retired in 1971. 

One thing the book demonstrates is just how hard it is for any government body to prevent itself from interfering in an economy—with the inevitably counterproductive results. Sir John, it shows, fought off many such attempts. There is a story that the British government, then pursuing a full interventionist policy, sent a group of civil servants over to Hong Kong to ask Sir John why he was not keeping unemployment statistics, and to make him do just that. Sir John, goes the story, put them on the next plane back home, explaining that entrepreneurs know the precise state of the labour market from day to day, never mind quarter to quarter, and that if he kept unemployment statistics, people would want him to produce some counterproductive intervention to boost unemployment.

The story is not true, but it is not far from the truth. Cowperthwaite had to fight over and over to resist ‘enlightened’ interference with the Hong Kong people’s lives and businesses, and to maintain his doughty view that economic statistics were a double-edged sword and you should only collect the ones that are really essential.

It’s a fascinating story of a remarkable but quiet man, and the astonishing economic results of his benign policy. Perhaps it is a lesson not just for President Xi, but for us in the UK too, as we drift on doing so many of the wrong things that have made us 40% poorer than Hong Kong.

The book is available on Amazon here.