The neoliberal man

The cover of a soon to be released ASI paper features a Hong Kong market at night. Which is rather fitting, for Hong Kong could easily be described as the most neoliberal country in the world — a paragon of neoliberal success.

The story of Hong Kong’s growth is both long and fascinating, and could not be done justice in a mere blogpost. But there is one man who is worth mentioning, who has much responsibility for making Hong Kong into what it is today, and yet is all too often forgotten.

John J. Cowperthwaite is not likely a name that you will remember from your history lessons. In fact, it is not likely a name that you will remember at all. He is arguably one of history’s most unsung heroes, and that is a great shame, for he was absolutely instrumental in not only taking Hong Kong’s economy from strength to strength after the Second World War, but also in showing the world that laissez faire economics is workable and brings results.

Milton Friedman said “it would be hard to overestimate the debt that Hong Kong owes to Cowperthwaite”. But he was by no means a self-important man. He had a reputation for being shy, and as an appointed civil servant, he owed no favours to anyone. He arrived in Hong Kong in 1946 as the Assistant financial secretary, with instructions to “come up with a plan for economic growth”. But he came up with no plan, and yet the economy grew. It grew astoundingly. In the decade that he was financial secretary, wages rose by 50% and the percentage of those living in poverty in Hong Kong plummeted from 50 to 15%.

What did this son of a Scottish tax collector do to propel so many into prosperity? The answer is that he didn’t do anything. When a British executive approached Cowperthwaite to ask him to develop the merchant banking industry, Cowperthwaite politely palmed him off and told him that he had better find a merchant banker. Similarly, when a legislator suggested to Cowperthwaite that the government should prioritise the development of promising industries, Cowperthwaite refused and asked how the government could possibly know which businesses had potential and which did not.

Cowperthwaite flat out refused to collect most economic statistics, from fear that doing so would give bureaucrats and legislators an excuse to meddle in the economy. Of course, this caused upset in Whitehall, and when they commanded a group of civil servants to go over and see just what the hell was going on, Cowperthwaite sent them home as soon as they arrived. Yet still from 1945 to 1997 Hong Kong ran a surplus every financial year – surprising all involved because the surpluses were not planned. Rather, they arose as a result of the market being left free. 

It was slightly unfair of me to state that John Cowperthwaite “didn’t do anything”. For though his success was largely down to his non-interventionism, ensuring that there was no intervention was backbreaking work. People were always trying to tinker with the economy. But Cowperthwaite maintained: “in the long run, the aggregate of the decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is likely to do less harm than the centralized decisions of a Government; and certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster.”

Today Hong Kong has a GDP per capita at 264% of the world's average, which has doubled in the last 15 years. The World Bank now rates the “ease of doing business” in Hong Kong as the best in the world. It has no taxes on capital gains, interest income or earnings from abroad. Its overall tax burden is just half of that of the United States. Its people are rich and its government small, and for this reason, it makes a fitting cover for our latest paper, but for this reason also, we should be thankful to John J Cowperthwaite.