Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Bleak rocks and gardens.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) once said something that was profoundly important yet relatively simple to understand. “Give a man the secure possession of a bleak rock, and he will turn it into a garden; give him nine years lease of a garden and he will convert it into a desert.”
What Mill was writing about, simply put, is the concept of property rights and the economic incentives those rights create.

A bleak rock with property rights becoming a garden may seem to be hyperbole. But Hong Kong was precisely such a bleak rock. It was a colony of Britain but it was colony where property rights and free markets prevailed. And it quickly became one of the most prosperous places on the planet. It has no natural resources to speak of and even the drinking water has to be imported. But with property rights the people prospered.

I’ve always marvelled when I walked the streets of Hong Kong. The massive skyscrapers and the hundreds of thousands of thriving shops and businesses are enticing. It’s a shoppers paradise.

Of course at one time the people of Hong Kong were poor. But they were free to trade their labour and they were, most importantly, free to keep what they produced. The average GDP per capita is now at $27,527 Government only consumes about 10.3% of GDP and the highest tax rate for individuals is 18.5%. There are few regulations, no minimum wage and secure property rights.

According to the Wall Street Journal’s economic freedom index Hong Kong is one of the world’s freest economy and has been for decades.

But Mill also wrote of a garden without property rights that turns to a desert. I can’t think of a better description for Zimbabwe.

There the average per capita GDP is a mere $2,607.00 and falling—Hong Kong is far wealthier in spite of both starting out as poor colonies. But where Hong Kong had no natural resources Zimbabwe had an abundance of them. But in Zimbabwe government spending equals about 38% of the entire GDP and the highest individual tax rate is a whooping 45%. Zimbabwe today is listed near the very bottom of the economic freedom index.

Just a few years ago Zimbabwe was a major food exporter but Mugabe’s infamous land confiscation made that history. Within a few short years the breadbasket of Southern Africa became the desert that was predicted by Mill over a century ago.

People produce goods and services, including food, when they feel that their effort will not go to waste. People won’t invest in property they don’t own or which they feel may be taken from them at the whim of government bureaucracy. There is security of property in Hong Kong and the bleak rock has become a garden. In Zimbabwe the garden has been transformed into a desert because property rights are no longer respected.

A farmer who fears losing his property won’t invest the same time, labour or money into the farm as does one who believes he’ll be allowed to reap the fruits of his labour. A business owner who knows that government will tax the bulk of his profit away is not as likely to put in the effort required to expand his business.
Production is not something that people plan on Monday and do on Tuesday. It’s a long term process. Even the talk of appropriating property from people, either through the process of land confiscation or higher taxes—which amounts to confiscation on the piecemeal basis—has the same effect.

A farmer fearing land confiscation may not put in the new irrigation system that is needed. He won’t build the new barn or bother clearing that extra land of rocks so he can plant there. He’s not just farming for tomorrow. He’s farming for next year, for ten years from now, even for the next generation.

Talk about involuntary land exchanges (where property is taken from an unwilling seller who is compensated) immediately impedes investment in land. The fruits of that lack of investment won’t show up immediately. It takes time but the results eventually do appear and they aren’t good.

Note: Different sources give different statistics but the relationship remains the same and they are mostly in the same range.

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