Friday, September 17, 2010

The multiple paths to nirvana

Sumner adjusts the World Economic Forum's "Global Competitiveness Report" to reduce the bias in favor of large economies and he is quite happy with the result:
It seems to me this list is exposing a perspective that is orthogonal to the tired left/right debate over big government.  It suggests multiple paths to nirvana.  To explain why, let me return to the three models of neoliberalism discussed in my ‘Great Danes’ paper.  I see those three models as providing answers to the three basic questions of governance:
A.   What values should government policies embody?
B.   What policies effectively deliver those values?
C.  When there is a dispute about which policies work best, how should the dispute be resolved?
The first question is moral, and the answer I give is “utilitarianism.”  Unlike 99% of people in the humanities, I regard utilitarianism as a radically egalitarian value system—where people put the best interest of society ahead of their own narrow self-interest.  The second question is scientific, and my answer is ‘economistic’ policies, those that are implemented by people cognizant of the (counter-intuitive) way taxes and regulations often distort decision-making.  The sort of fiscal regime you get if 100 Martin Feldsteins sat down and designed a country on a pad of paper.  In other words—Singapore.  The third question is political, and my answer is democracy.  And I don’t mean just having elections; I mean a system where the people actually govern.  Where every school is a separate school district.  Where taxes must be approved by referenda.  Where every decision is made at the lowest feasible level of government.
Low and behold, all three of these models are represented in the top 5 of my list.  What are the odds of that?  Even better, the other two countries (Sweden and HK) are nearly as good examples of hyper-egalitarian and hyper-economistic neoliberalism as Denmark and Singapore.  So here’s my point.  These countries don’t at all resemble each other.  You can’t get much more different than Hong Kong and Denmark, at least by the criteria used by most people on the left and right.  But they all do at least one thing extremely well.  They all are exceptionally good at one of the three attributes of a highly successful neoliberal society.  Either they are highly civic-minded (Denmark, Sweden), or highly aware of the sorts of policies that produce economic efficiency (Singapore, Hong Kong) or highly democratic.  Switzerland had more national referenda in the 20th century than the rest of the world combined.  And it also seems that all three have very good governance.

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