A Capital Idea - turning nominal ownership into real ownership

A Capital Idea - turning nominal ownership into real ownership

By giving capital funds to everyone, they would provide something which the poorest third a currently lacking – a capital pool that grows over time and could provide a cushion against some of life's contingencies.  Each account would be the property of the owner.  Instead of dying with them as many pensions do, it would be a heritable asset whose full value could be passed on to their children or to other heirs and successors.

Friedrich A Hayek (1899–1992)

F. A. Hayek, who died 25 years ago today, was one of the most important liberal thinkers of all time. He wrote not just about economics (for which he won a Nobel Prize), but also politics, psychology, and the history of ideas.

He was a good friend of the Adam Smith Institute, and spoke at many of our seminars, where his great wisdom was apparent. Often our participants would be discussing some difficult subject, getting tied in knots: whereupon Hayek would rise, cut straight to the heart of the matter, and provide the answer.

Hayek’s 1944 The Road To Serfdom, which showed how easily the ideas of social democracy could (and did) morph into totalitarianism, brought him popular fame. Soon after, he founded the Mont Pelerin Society, an international forum that kept liberal ideas alive during the bleak times after the Second World War. Its ideas influenced a whole generation of intellectuals and informed the policies of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and the new Eastern European leaders who emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

His life as an economist began when he was hired by Ludwig von Mises. In 1927 they set up an institute to explore business cycles. They concluded that these cycles were caused by central banks setting interest rates too low — encouraging excessive borrowing, investment and spending. But low rates also discouraged saving, and when funds dried up, investments had to be abandoned and people were thrown out of work. It explains much of our present predicament.

In the 1930s, Hayek came to Britain, becoming professionally famous through his disputes with Keynes, who wanted government spending to kick-start the economy. Hayek countered that this would bring only inflation, disruption and debt.

But Keynes won the day, and Hayek turned more to social and political philosophy. His key insight was the concept of spontaneous order. Human and animal societies, he observed, show obvious regularities. Yet nobody planned the society of bees or the rules of human language or the operations of markets. They evolved spontaneously, and endured simply because they were useful.

But they are also complex and devolved. We tamper with them at our peril — as evidenced by the dismal failure of economic ‘planning’ behind the Iron Curtain.

We did not design the market system. We stumbled upon it. When people traded, prices emerged: and prices contain all the information needed for the system to work. We do not need to know why people want more of something, or why not enough was being produced: a rising price says it all — and draws effort and capital into serving those wants.

Hayek saw freedom as critical to spontaneous orders. When we force people to act in preconceived ways, we disrupt the delicate workings of society. And if spontaneous social orders are to evolve and strengthen, they need new ideas, not preconceived ones.

Freedom, to Hayek, meant minimising coercion, including state coercion. The state should be limited to preventing people breaking the rules by which society survives and prospers. But to prevent state power being abused, we need a rule of law that restrains government officials just like the rest of us. 

Hayek saw justice as the rules that enabled the social order to work. We could not invent justice: we had to discover it through trial and error. What people call ‘social justice’ was quite different — not a set of rules but a preconceived social outcome. Achieving that outcome meant treating people differently — and once we began to do that, there was no obvious stopping point on the road to serfdom.

 

Eamonn Butler is author of Friedrich Hayek: The Ideas And Influence Of The Libertarian Economist (Harriman House).

Is a nearby pharmacy worth 2% of annual income?

As ever when budget cuts are considered the current beneficiaries are screaming blue bloody murder and insisting that they're only talking about the public good not their own wallets:

Nearly 300,000 people, many of whom are elderly and live in rural areas, will have to travel five miles more to collect their medicines because of a Government subsidy cut.

The study by the House of Commons library laid bare how much further the ill and sick will have to travel for medicines if pharmacies close because of a cut in a vital subsidy.

The news comes as campaigners will today start a four day challenge in the High Court against the cuts.

That's not quite what the study does say:

297,384 people would see increases of more than 2½ miles but less than 5 miles.

68,376 people would see increases of 5 miles or more

Note that this is all people, not just the elderly, nor even those needing prescriptions.

But to the money. So, those 300,000 claimed, the savings will be £200 million. That's £600 odd per person per year.

Median income is in the mid £20 thousands these days, so why not call that 2% of annual income for those affected? Which gives us the question, is having a nearby pharmacy worth 2% of annual income? 

No, we don't know either but we do think that's an interesting way of phrasing it.

Eight reasons to legalise cannabis

I was asked to speak on a panel this morning to give the case for cannabis legalisation, and found it a useful exercise in tidying and focusing my thoughts. My overarching point was that, if it does happen, it’s probably going to be because of a fundamental shift in public opinion of the kind that’s taking place in some parts of the United States, so at this stage it’s most useful to consider how we might want to approach decriminalisation or full legalisation. Still, the broad case for cannabis legalisation is worth making, and I tried to do so.

  1. Fundamentally: because it’s an enjoyable consumer product that causes less harm than many existing legal products that nobody sane thinks we should make illegal, and the harms that it does cause are best dealt with by cannabis being a legal product.

  2. 2.1 million people use cannabis a year, 6.5% of the UK population (according to the Home Office Crime Survey for England and Wales). That’s an awful lot of people who are de facto criminals, and even a broad estimate of the proportion of ‘problem users’ is relatively small – and there’s not much reason to think that the drug being illegal is good for problem users anyway.

  3. The law isn’t predictably or consistently enforced – arrests for possession of cannabis in England and Wales have dropped by 46 percent since 2010. Cautions dropped by 48 percent and charges fell by 33 percent as of 2016. This is mostly because funding has been cut, targets have changed and stop and search is being used less. Other than possession with intent to supply, it's not a priority for most police forces. Having a law on the statute books that is capriciously enforced makes an ass of the law in general.

  4. Prohibition increases the supply of stronger and potentially more harmful types of cannabis – as Sam Dumitriu put it, prohibition created skunk. Suppose we treated alcohol the same way we treat cannabis: very quickly the most widely available stuff would be strong spirits, because they are a much more concentrated way of delivering alcohol than beer or wine. By imposing effectively a blanket additional cost on drug supply, drug prohibition encourages the most concentrated drugs to dominate the market. Most cannabis users and would-be users that I am aware of would prefer to buy less strong stuff, but find it difficult – because the market is not being allowed to function properly.

  5. Most revenues from drug supply goes to criminal gangs, creating financing for other (more harmful) activities & violent side-effects such as turf wars. Taking the cannabis supply chain out of the hands of people willing to kill and putting it into the hands of organisations like Boots would reduce violence, and make the suppliers legally accountable to their customers in the event of fraud.

  6. Legalisation could produce benefits to the government of £750m–£1.05bn in tax revenues and lower criminal justice costs. I’m not too excited about this, because a revenue-hungry government might well put the tax up to a level that’s so high that black market cannabis is still attractive to users. This has been a problem in Colorado – regular users are still buying from their (untaxed) black market dealers, who can undercut the legal market, so some of the benefits we hoped for haven’t materialised.

  7. The public probably isn’t as opposed as you think. Polling results differ wildly depending on how we frame the question. Polls that stress the regulated nature of a legal market produce majorities or near-majorities in favour of legalisation or decriminalisation; polls that just ask the question straight show majorities or near-majorities against. That suggests to me that opposition is fairly soft and the big question is how reform happens and how the debate is framed. In the US, the polling evidence suggests that people have very specific things in mind (street consumption, teenagers’ access to the drug), which we might be able to craft a regulatory framework to avoid.

  8. Cannabis is a much less dangerous alternative to many 'legal highs' that attempt to synthetically reproduce the effects of drugs like cannabis. These are mostly illegal, in fact, under the absurdly expansive Psychoactive Substances Act, along with things like hangover-free alcohol, but a simpler way of moving people away from them would be to make drugs like cannabis that we have more experience with and knowledge of easier to get hold of.

As for how we do it, I’ve written elsewhere about the need to regulate cannabis as a consumer product and not act as if the 2 million people who use it are all addicts in need of a treatment programme (a very small fraction are, in fact). I also argued here that decriminalisation is a bit of a dead-end for reform, and going for full legalisation is a better idea. Charlotte Bowyer reflected on the first year of Colorado’s legalisation back in 2015, and Volteface’s Dr Henry Fisher and I comprehensively fisked a really poor piece in the Times about the Coloradan experience a few months ago. And here’s The Tide Effect, the ASI and Volteface’s joint publication about the history of cannabis prohibition in the UK.

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. 

As we've been saying for some time now

There is both a certain hysteria about us all being fatty lardbuckets and also a true outbreak of us all being fatty lardbuckets at present. The obvious question is why? For only once we know why this is true can we attempt to do something about it.

Various bits and pieces of thinking are put forward. It must be because food is cheap therefore we're all eating more. Or our grotesque modern consumption of sugar. Or fizzy drinks, or, well, something! That we eat fewer calories than our forefathers, less sugar than in the past, means that those three explanations can't really be true even given their popularity within political circles.

As we've been muttering for some time now we think it is ubiquitous central heating:

Opening your bedroom window at night to allow in a cool breeze could be simple, if chilly, way of preventing obesity and Type 2 diabetes, an Oxford University academic has suggested.

Professor of Endocrinology Ashley Grossman said there was mounting evidence that cooling the body even by just a couple of degrees was beneficial for health.

Of course there's some burble about climate change in this report just to be fashionable but still:

A recent study by Maastricht University Medical Centre in the Netherlands advised turning the thermostat down to between 15 C and 17 C for a few hours a day to keep weight down.

The experts claimed that because we spend so much time indoors, often in overheated homes and offices, our bodies do not naturally burn calories to keep warm. Temperatures closer to what it is like outside might be more beneficial to health.

Simply being colder raises the metabolic rate - the speed at which calories are burnt - by 30 per cent,

We base out thinking on the point that the major energy usage in a mammal is body temperature regulation. Now that we've automated much of that the imbalance between calories in and out has widen - thus we all get fat.

Now that we've identified the correct cause we can design a solution. The most obvious would be to plunge the entire population into fuel poverty so that we have to cool our homes. Fortunately we have government departments working on that already what with those green energy plans so we're sorted, aren't we?

 

How sweatshops help the poor

Recently, the President of the ASI Madsen Pirie wrote a blog telling of how we used to give out rubber wristbands to those who signed up to our mailing list. The wristbands boldly stated “I buy goods from poorer countries”. A rather ironic take on the famous “make poverty history” slogan.

But a common objection to buying from poorer countries is that in doing so, one might be complicit in supporting the atrocious working conditions many are forced into. This has led to various campaigns to boycott companies that don’t source labour responsibly. One source of labour viewed by many as irresponsible is sweatshops.

Sweatshops are frequently vilified, and rightfully so. They are often horrible places to work, with long hours and few workers’ rights. But though they may be awful, they should not be outlawed. They play an important role in the world economy and in bettering the lives of millions across the globe.

The first point to note is that more often than not, the alternative for those who work in sweatshops is much much worse. Yes, they may be blisteringly uncomfortable places to work with disease and abuse rife, but if people have chosen to work there, it must be better than their alternatives.

The danger posed to those unfortunate enough to consider them their best choice was shown by the horrific Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, where 1,129 people died. These included individuals making goods for high street names such as Matalan, Primark, Monsoon and Walmart. Given this, it is easy to see how sweatshops may be viewed as incredibly evil. But it is important to remember that for many of these people, the alternative is to work in agriculture, particularly subsistence farming, which is the most dangerous line of work in the world. If sweatshops were banned, then many of the people working there would be forced to move into far more dangerous, less desirable professions.

This point was illustrated well in 1993, when US Senator Tom Harkin proposed a ban on imports from countries that employed children in sweatshops — a measure that would seem to many both noble and just. But in response to the proposal, a factory in Bangladesh let 50,000 of its workers go. According to Oxfam, a significant number of children made unemployed as a result became prostitutes.

It is important to remember that conditions in sweatshops are awful to us by our own standards. By the standards of cripplingly poor rural Bangladeshis’, they might well be very attractive. Likewise, the pay that sweatshop workers receive would be seen as unimaginably meagre if we were to frame it in the context of the society in which we live. It would be impossible to exist in the UK on what they earn in sweatshops. But to them, sweatshops bring a pretty penny. Research by David Skarbek in 2006 found that wages from sweatshop work exceed national average income in eight out of ten countries surveyed. In paying more than the national average, it lifts people out of poverty and gives them money to spend and invest in things that improve not only their individual lives, but the condition of the nation as a whole.

Which bring me onto my next point. Sweatshops are great for the economic and social development of a nation. The extra money that can be earned can be taxed to provide basic infrastructure and sound governance. More importantly, the extra money earned can be spent by individuals on education, healthcare motorbikes and goats. If people wish to forgo pleasant working conditions (or escape worse working conditions) for these things, then who are we to stop them?

But I must not neglect the remarkable fact that sweatshops seem to be particularly good for women in the developing world. Rachel Heath and A. Mushfiq Mobarak, of Yale and Washington Universities wrote a paper in 2014 that took a look at the impact the garment industry had on young girls and women in Bangladesh. They found that girls who live in villages closest to garment factories (also known as sweatshops) had significant advantages compared to those who did not. Amongst the findings were that girls living near a factory were 28% less likely to get married in the school year than on average for a Bangladeshi girl, similarly, girls were 29% less likely to get pregnant in a school year. These findings were most pronounced amongst 12-18 year olds. Sam Bowman wrote a blogpost on this fascinating study a few years back.

Sweatshops are often seen as stepping stones on the path to economic development. When millions move away from subsistence living and produce a surplus that can be invested and spent, whole nations rise up out of poverty. This can be seen to have happened in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan (to name but a few), where large scale cheap labour was instrumental in creating the developed nations that exist today.

So buying cheaper goods made in the developing world not only makes you richer by saving you money, but it also makes those in the developing world richer too. It doesn’t mean you are complicit in the abuse of factory workers, it means you are filling the coffers of those who are most in need of having their coffers filled. So next time you are torn between buying from two shops, just remember that to enrich the poorest and neediest in the world, sweatshops might just be your best bet.

Virtue-signalling does not help the poor

Eleven years ago people were wearing wristbands that said, "Make Poverty History." It was a popular virtue-signalling slogan partly because it did not involve actually doing anything. 

The Adam Smith Institute produced its own wristbands for the first and only time.  They said, "I buy goods from poorer countries," expressing something people can actually do about relieving poverty.  Of course the wristbands were made in poorer countries, and we sent a free one to anyone who gave us a mailing address.  We had thousands made and they went all over the world.  A second batch was made, then a third.  Having made our point, we stopped.

Our point was that poor countries don't become rich because of pious sentiments, or even by receiving development aid.  They grow richer through trade, through selling their goods on world markets.  Globalization, free trade and neoliberalism have done more in a generation to relieve poverty and uplift the human condition than has ever been done before in human history.

All of the major indicators of deprivation, including child mortality, hunger, illiteracy, and poverty, have taken a steep downward path.  Poverty, for example, has halved worldwide in the past 20 years.  Some critics try to depict neoliberalism as an approach designed to increase the wealth of rich countries at the expense of the poor ones, and claim the gap is widening.  The reverse is true; it is people in poor countries who have benefitted most from it.

This graph features in a CapX article by Chelsea Follett

Yet the free trade that has lifted so many from subsistence and starvation is currently under attack by a devil's band of anti-capitalists, protectionists, populists and environmentalists.  They would deny poorer people the chance to gain wealth by selling us what they produce, and they would deny us the chance to gain wealth by buying it.  Maybe in the fanciful world of their ideologies the slogans they bandy about might resonate, but in the real world they have no traction.  Globalization, free trade and neoliberalism can stand on the record of what they have achieved in practice. 

The arguments we made when we produced those wristbands are just as valid today, and are supported by even more years of practical achievement.  Poverty is well on its way to becoming history, but it is not virtue-signalling that is working toward that goal, nor is it protectionism.  It has been capitalism and free trade.

This grammar school ding dong is so confusing

To us the arguments of grammar schools are almost exotically simple. The customers of the school system are the parents of the children in it. Systems should deliver what customers want. Thus those parents who wish to have a selective school system should be able to have one.

We would also note that those who wish to have a non-selective school system are equally free to send their children to one. We know of no one who does advocate grammars who insists they must be universal. That insistence upon uniformity only works the other way, those insisting upon a purely comprehensive system. And that too makes the decision of which side to support exotically simple. One side is stating that they want this and you can have what you want, the other insisting that everyone must only have the one system, choice must be denied.

Grammars it is then.

But even within the arguments being offered there is confusion

Theresa May’s personal crusade to expand the number of grammar schools is in serious jeopardy today as senior Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs unite in an unprecedented cross-party campaign to kill off the prime minister’s flagship education reform.

In a highly unusual move, the Tory former education secretary Nicky Morganjoins forces with her previous Labour shadow Lucy Powell and the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to condemn the plans as damaging to social mobility, ideologically driven and divisive.

The opposition is clearly nothing but ideologically driven but that's just the normal hypocrisy of politics. But this insistence upon social mobility is a mark of the confusion among those arguing.

Social mobility, near always and everywhere, has been low. The UK's measure of it isn't very different from other countries, other places with very different school systems - say Sweden, as Greg Clark's research has shown. The one great burst of social mobility was post-WWII, but that's not quite what it seems either. We tend to apply greater social status to indoor work, no heavy lifting, and those decades were when the economy shifted from mass manufacturing into those sorts of services. And this happened right across the Western world and there's just about no correlation at all with the underlying school system.

But what really flabbers our ghast is that people are talking about social mobility when what they mean is economic mobility. For that's how they measure it, income of children relative to income of parents. And it's absurd to have a conversation in England, of all places, which confuses the two issues. Social position, in this of all countries, is more about whether you use a knife to eat your peas rather than how much money you make. Polly Toynbee may have emulated* Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed by trying out a few week's of society's scut work but she was still the gg granddaughter of an Earl and that matters in England.

We find this whole discussion, as at the top, very simple, exotically so. What confuses us is why everyone else seems to get so confused.

 

*That's one, rather polite, description of the genesis of "Hard Work"

We do have to say this, Duncan Weldon is entirely correct here

Up to a Copperian Point Weldon is correct that is. It is entirely true that if the British State is to carry on spending in the manner of that nautical shore leave then taxes must rise to match:

Back in the 1960s and 1970s tax receipts averaged around 38% of national income, but after a large drop in the 1980s they have bounced around the 34% to 36% mark ever since.

...

Despite all the rhetoric on the pressing need for deficit reduction, since 2010 the burden has fallen mainly on the spending side of the ledger. Current tax receipts stood at 36.4% of the economy in 2010-11 and by 2015-16 had fallen to 36.2%. Meanwhile, government spending as a proportion of the economy was cut from 44.9% to 40%.

Quite so. And there is a political choice to be made here. We can have the low tax low redistribution near laissez faire of Hong Kong, we can have the high tax and redistribution heavy social democracy of the Nordics and we can also have this middle way, the Anglo-Saxon muddle through the middle which characterises the US and UK. It's pretty clear which of those we ourselves would prefer but it is also equally obvious that this is a choice, it's a vision of the good society and it's perfectly valid to aim for any of the three.

But here's the thing. This is Britain and thus which of the three we aim for will depend upon the wishes and desires of Britons en masse. And we can very easily get the inhabitants of these sceptre'd isles to tell us that they'd just love more government services and more hand outs and that Nordic welfare state. But when push comes to shove we come up against revealed, rather than expressed, preferences:

Not since 1992 has one of the major political parties felt able to commit itself openly at an election to raising one of the major taxes – the basic and higher rate of income tax, NICs or VAT.

..

 In the past few decades only Gordon Brown’s increase in NICs in the early 2000s – a pledge explicitly linked to the NHS – has received broad public support.

We Brits will happily contemplate getting more from government but we're not willing to pay government to have them. That is, we're not being serious, we don't in fact want these things at all.

To have that Nordic state would mean paying (much) more in tax. We won't pay much more in tax - thus we're not only not going to have the Nordic state we don't want it either.

Ho hum, looks as if we're stuck with that Anglo Saxon through the middle thing then, much as we ourselves would prefer the Hong Kong option.