Showing posts with label Economic freedom. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Economic freedom. Show all posts

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Do people now have greater economic freedom in Sweden than in the U.S. and Australia?

 


When I think of Sweden, what comes to mind is a big government welfare state, with higher priority being given to economic security than to economic freedom. I was therefore surprised when I saw the Heritage Foundation data reproduced in the accompanying graph, which shows that economic freedom in Sweden is now higher in the United States and Australia. I expect that many readers would be similarly surprised.

The substantial decline which the graph shows for economic freedom in the U.S. and Australia since 2020 is presumably associated with government policies restricting freedom during the Covid19 pandemic. However, economic freedom in Sweden has apparently maintained an upward trend during that period.

In order to come to grips with this new information I thought it might be helpful to consider alternative economic freedom estimates and to take a look at the components of the Heritage Foundation’s economic freedom estimates.  

Comparison of Heritage and Fraser estimates   

 Some of those who feel uncomfortable with the idea that people may now have more economic freedom in Sweden than in the U. S. and Australia might obtain some solace from the fact that the latest economic freedom estimates of the Fraser Institute has Sweden (in 33rd place) ranked far behind both Australia (6th) and the U.S.  (7th).  Some of the differences between the Heritage and Fraser estimates may be attributable to timing. The Heritage estimates for 2023 are based as far as possible on data for June 30, 2022, whereas the latest available Fraser estimates are for 2020. However, there are also differences in the aspects of economic freedom covered by the indexes. For example, the Heritage estimates incorporate Fiscal Health (deficits and debt) which is an aspect of economic management not incorporated in the Fraser estimates.

I was not surprised to see Sweden ranked first in the Fraser Institute’s index of personal freedom, well ahead of Australia (17th) and the U.S. (33rd). The Human Freedom index (which combines economic freedom and personal freedom) has Sweden ranked 6th, ahead of Australia (11th) and the U.S. (23rd).

Comparison of scores on various aspects of economic freedom


The comparison of scores on the accompanying graph indicate that aspects in which Sweden performs relatively well, by comparison with Australia and the U.S. are fiscal health and government integrity. As might be expected from Sweden’s welfare state reputation, the aspects on which Sweden performs relatively poorly include tax burden and government spending.

Conclusion

The answer to the question I posed at the outset depends on which economic freedom index one looks at. The Heritage Foundation’s index clearly has people enjoying greater economic freedom in Sweden than in the U.S. and Australia, but that finding is not confirmed by the Fraser Institute’s index. Whatever Sweden’s current ranking relative to the U.S. and Australia, it is worth pondering how Sweden has managed to maintain relatively high levels of economic and personal freedom, despite having a large welfare state. At this stage, there is not much evidence that Sweden is in grave danger of sliding down the slippery slope to serfdom. 


Tuesday, May 16, 2023

What is holding back the growth of economic opportunities in PNG?

 


Why should you care about the economic opportunities available to the people of Papua New Guinea?  Perhaps some readers didn’t even know the location of Papua New Guinea (PNG) before looking at the accompanying map.

There is a lot to be said for the view that the people of PNG should be left to solve their own problems for themselves. However, one of the problems the people of PNG need to solve is how to reduce their dependence on foreign aid. Another problem they need to solve is how to cope with living in a part of the world in which China and the United States are increasingly competing for influence.

Joe Biden, the president of the United States is to visit Port Moresby, the capital of PNG, on May 22 for discussions with Pacific Island Forum members, while on his way to Sydney for a Quad meeting.

My personal interest in the economic opportunities available to people in PNG stems from having worked there as a consultant on economic policy, having visited as a tourist on several occasions, and not least, from having relatives who live there. I maintain an interest in economic and social development in PNG and have written about it on this blog in the past (here, here, here, and here).

In this article I suggest that opportunities for human flourishing in PNG are less promising than recent macroeconomic indicators might suggest. After considering some macro-economic indicators, I briefly discuss population statistics, corruption and profligacy, the law and order problem, poor opportunities for young people, and lack of economic freedom.

Macro-economic indicators

The World Bank’s latest Economic Update paints a fairly rosy picture, with economic growth of 4.5 percent for 2022. Government revenue from mining and petroleum taxes surged (reflecting the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on natural gas prices). The increased revenue led to a reduction in the fiscal deficit. The magnitude of public debt remains a problem, with interest payments exceeding public spending on both health and education.

Inflation at around 6 percent per annum is not unduly high by comparison with other countries, but rising food prices have made life increasingly difficult for many people in urban areas. Foreign exchange rationing, associated with pegging of the Kina against the USD, has been a hindrance to business.

Population statistics

I mention population statistics mainly because questions that have recently been raised about the reliability of official estimates of the population illustrate the existence of deep-seated problems in public administration. The official estimate of population for 2022 is between 9 and 11 million. However, a leaked UN report has suggested that the population could be as high as 17 million. In this instance, the official estimate seems more likely to be correct. However, the last credible census took place 20 years ago, so no-one really knows the size of the PNG population.

It is widely accepted that the population of PNG has been growing rapidly and that the majority of people are relatively young, probably under 25 years old.

Corruption and profligacy

Corruption is still a major problem in PNG, although there seems to have been some reduction over the last decade. Of the 180 countries included in the Corruption Perceptions Index, only 50 were rated as more corrupt than PNG in 2022.

Profligacy in spending of public money by some government ministers is legendary. For example, in 2018, when PNG hosted the APEC summit, Justin Tkatchenko attracted controversy by purchasing 40 custom-made Maserati luxury cars. He claimed that they would sell like hot cakes after the event. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. More recently, the same minister again attracted criticism for taking an overly large contingent of people with him, at public expense, to the coronation of King Charles III. It was his intemperate response, labelling critics as “primitive animals”, which eventually led to his resignation from the position of Foreign Minister.

The law-and-order problem

There has been a law-and-order problem is PNG for many years. In 2015 I wrote:

“It is unsafe for tourists to walk around most parts of Port Moresby alone except within the boundaries of major hotels, modern shopping malls and other locations where security is provided. The same applies to local residents. Tourists are more fortunate than most of the locals because they can afford to be transported safely from one secure area to another.”

It is particularly unsafe for women and girls to be in public places. A recent article on DEVPOLICYBLOG by Sharon Banuk, a university student, describes the nature of the problem that she has faced in staying safe.

PNG is ranked second, behind Venezuela, as the country with the highest number of reported crimes per 100,000 people. The ranking of PNG seems to have remained the same since 2017, having risen from 16th place in 2015.

Poor economic opportunities for young people

The law-and-order problem has been linked to the increasing problem of youth unemployment in an article by Ms. Julian Melpa for the National Research Institute. A recent study found 68 per cent of people aged between 14 to 35 in Port Moresby were unemployed. Even people with tertiary qualifications often find it difficult to obtain employment.


The difficulty of finding employment is illustrated the accompanying photo of job seekers, published with a report in The National newspaper on Feb 6, 2023. The crowd were competing for a few advertised vacancies at a hotel in Port Moresby.

Lack of economic freedom

International agencies tend to label the main deficiencies in economic freedom in countries like PNG as governance problems. That labelling may make their advice more palatable to politicians who have ideological hangups about free markets but it obscures the adverse impact of lack of economic freedom on incentives to invest, innovate and create greater opportunities for human flourishing.

Only 36 of the 176 countries included in the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom have a lower ranking than PNG. A similar picture emerges from the Fraser Institute’s economic freedom ratings. Only 43 of the 165 countries included in the Fraser index have a lower economic freedom rating than PNG.

PNG has particularly low ratings for rule of law (covering property rights, judicial effectiveness, and government integrity) business freedom, and investment freedom.

PNG governments have obviously been having major problems in performing the core functions of government in protecting natural rights of individuals to be safe and have opportunities to flourish. Governments face a formidable challenge in protecting economic freedom in PNG, with most of the population living in village communities and having little contact with the market economy.

However, similar challenges face governments in some other countries. Some African countries which face similar challenges now seem to be performing better than PNG in facilitating growth of economic opportunities.

Postscript

Readers who are interested in a more comprehensive picture of the well-being of people in PNG should visit the relevant country site of The Legatum Prosperity Index. For the purpose of the Legatum index, prosperity is defined broadly as occurring "when all people have the opportunity to thrive by fulfilling their unique potential and playing their part in strengthening their communities and nations".

My article mentions a visit to PNG by Joe Biden, which was scheduled for May 22. Unfortunately, this  visit will not occur as planned because he has given higher priority to political negotiations over the U.S. government debt ceiling.  


Monday, February 27, 2023

How authoritarian are American political leaders?

 


A few days ago, I took the Political Compass test for a second time. The test, devised by politicalcompass.org , requires individuals to respond to questions which indicate where their views place them on scales labelled Authoritarian - Libertarian and Left - Right. My position had not changed since I last took the test 7 years ago (see below) but as I looked around the site, I noticed the chart (reproduced above) which suggests that the main contenders in the U.S. 2020 election held relatively authoritarian and right wing views (with Biden somewhat less authoritarian than Trump).



Does the political compass make sense?  The horizonal axis measures economic freedom, with people at the right end favoring more economic freedom. That corresponds, more or less, to the conventional left-right spectrum. The vertical axis measures personal freedom, with people whose views place them at the top end favoring greater restriction of personal freedom. It seems to me that the positioning of a person on a political compass incorporating a personal freedom axis is much more informative than attempting to position them on only one axis.  However, the labelling adopted is not ideal. To be considered a libertarian, in my view it is necessary to advocate economic freedom as well as personal freedom.

I was somewhat surprised by the placement of both Biden and Trump as favoring a relatively high level of restrictions on personal freedom. I don’t follow American politics closely enough to dispute how accurate that placement might be within that context.

However, by international standards, it would make little sense to view Biden or Trump as advocates of authoritarian policies. The policies they have advocated in their efforts to win votes have not been greatly different from those currently prevailing in the United States. By international standards, people in the U.S. have relatively high levels of personal and economic freedom.

The results of the latest Human Freedom Index, published by Cato and the Fraser Institute, can be used to illustrate the point. The Human Freedom Index is the result of painstaking efforts to compile a vast amount of data relating to economic freedom and personal freedom in 165 countries.

It is interesting to see the relative position of various countries in a comparable scatter diagram showing economic freedom and the x axis and personal freedom on the y axis. In the diagram below, which I have labelled “Ideological Map of the World”, the values on the personal freedom axis are in reverse order to make it comparable to the political compass. The horizontal and vertical lines drawn on the diagram are positioned at median levels of economic and personal freedom.



The position of the U.S. is clear from the chart. The levels of both personal freedom and economic freedom in the U.S. are comparable to those of other liberal democracies, and far greater than in China or Russia.

My libertarian friends in the U.S. may have good reasons to view their national political leaders as excessively authoritarian, but they are competing for the votes of people who, by international standards, enjoy relatively high levels of personal and economic freedom.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Does the "Politics of Being" support progress?

 


“Politics of Being” is title of a recently published book by Thomas Legrand. The subtitle is “Wisdom and science for a new development paradigm”. The question I ask myself is whether Legrand’s views support progress as I defined the concept in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. Would widespread adoption of Legrand’s views enhance the growth of opportunities for individuals to obtain the basic goods of flourishing humans?

Before I purchased the book, I was aware that the author had shown wisdom by including this quote from Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Lecture:

“A core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.”

That passage is actually quoted several times in the book and is sometimes accompanied by the preceding sentence in which Ostrom distances her approach from that of policy analysts who design institutions “to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes”. The passage I have quoted at the top of this article illustrates Ostrom’s optimistic view of the capacity of individuals to work together to devise solutions to collective action problems without help from governments.

The essence of Legrand’s line of argument is that the world is stuck in an obsolete development path and is in need of a new “wisdom-based approach to politics”.  I will discuss briefly what he perceives to be wrong with the current development path, before discussing some elements of the alternative path he advocates.

Perception of the problem

Legrand believes that the current development path is causing many problems. The world is on track for a climate change catastrophe. Economic development and increased life expectancy are not making people much happier in high-income countries. Many countries seem to be facing mental health crises. There has been a decline in interpersonal trust in many countries. Our current model of development is rooted in a set of values that are causing a civilization crisis. He writes:

“Our economic system not only destroys social ties and the environment but feeds on these destructions that create new market opportunities. It seeks to adapt humans to its own requirements rather than adapting itself to human needs. Based on fundamental misconceptions, this system can only perpetuate itself through ever more propaganda that feeds our disconnection from ourselves, our true needs, and ultimately, our apathy.”

I agree that all is not well with the world and share some of Legrand’s concerns. However, I am more optimistic than he is about climate change, and strongly disagree with his views on economics. Readers who are interested in my views should read Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

Being and Interbeing

Legrand argues that the new development model required is essentially spiritual. He views spiritual development as:

“the process by which we come closer to our true nature. From that connection, we naturally tend to manifest the highest qualities: wisdom, love, joy, peace etc., or simply the best or most authentic version of ourselves currently available!”

Legrand’s discussion of spiritual values includes chapters on life, happiness, love, peace, mindfulness, and light.

According to Legrand the new paradigm involves a transition from “having to being, which many believe means interbeing”. So, what is interbeing?

 “Interbeing is a term coined by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, which goes beyond interconnectedness to touch on the very nature of our being. It expresses the nature of reality based on the Buddhist teachings of interdependent co-arising (“that is because this is”), non-self, and impermanence”.

I see no problem accepting that everything is interdependent. Impermanence does seem pervasive (except in respect of fundamental values, virtues, and the highest qualities). But “non-self” poses problems. As I see it, self-awareness is a fundamental characteristic of the kind of thing (entity or system) that an individual human is.  Self-respect arises from self-awareness, and motivates respect for other people, and other living things. Respect is the foundation which makes love possible. By the way, do you know who it was who said “one should not hurt others if one loves oneself”? The answer is here.

At various points in the book Legrand recognizes that people have “higher selves” and “true selves”, so he seems to acknowledge that we should aim to purify our egos – to remove the biases, distortions, and attachments that tarnish our perceptions of our individual selves - rather than eliminate self-awareness. He provides a good summary of his view of “being” and of personal development in this passage:

“As a person, there is little chance that I get closer to my authentic being by defining a vision of who I am and trying to actualize it. On the contrary, I can discover who I am by freeing myself from predefined and limiting identities, purifying my intentions, character, and behaviors, and expressing the deepest yearning of my soul. This is a conscious, evolutionary process of emergence, informed but not bounded by the understanding I have of my essence, which is necessarily limited. The same is true for nations.”

The world would be a better place if more people adopted that as their personal development model. However, I was tempted to leave off the last sentence of the quoted passage. The idea that nations have “souls” seems to me to be collectivist nonsense.

Governance

The part of the book providing an agenda for action envisages a larger role for government than I had anticipated. For example, Legrand suggests that government efforts to promote early childhood education should start during pregnancy. He also suggests that governments should actively promote a healthy diet. Even followers of Elinor Ostrom can sometimes find it difficult to remember to avoid adopting an overly pessimistic view of what people can achieve without government guidance.

I agree with Legrand that it is na├»ve for people to believe that “all it takes to improve our societies is to secure a majority of voters for their ideas, especially when they engender polarization”. Political leaders have no hope of implementing lasting reforms unless they can foster broad community support for them. That usually means avoiding politicization of the issues. (As an aside, one of the inconvenient truths about politics is that Al Gore’s involvement in support of U.S. action to mitigate climate change provided a focus for Republican opposition to such policies.)

The book contains interesting proposals to enact the “politics of being” in political institutions. Legrand suggests that each nation should establish a “wisdom council” to preside over discussions about the nation’s evolution with the government and parliament. The councils would consist of equal representations of four groups: randomly selected citizens, representatives of the “outer” economic, social, and environmental life of the nation, representatives of the “inner” spiritual, cultural, and psychological life of the nation, and “representatives of non-human members of the earth community”.

Legrand also suggests that the Baha’i model of governance should be adopted for lower houses of parliament. In brief, adult community members elect representatives at the local level and are urged not to discuss with others who to vote for. The local representative vote for regional representatives, who in turn vote for national representatives.

It is difficult to envisage circumstances in which politicians would enact such radical changes to existing systems of representative government. However, if the outcomes of the existing systems become increasingly unpalatable, radical alternatives will no doubt be contemplated by an increasing number of citizens. In that context, Legrand’s proposals will have stiff competition from other proposals, including the decentralist approach discussed previously on this blog.

The main problem I see with Legrand’s governance proposals is their potential to infringe individual liberty. Most of the members of the proposed governing council would be likely to advance the interests that they represent by advocating further restriction of individual liberty. The Baha’i model is presumably more responsive to community members than religious and political governance systems in which the hierarchy is self-perpetuating, but people who are indirectly elected to peak positions still have less incentive to have regard for the wishes of members at the grassroots level than if they were directly elected, or selected randomly.

Facilitating progress?

Legrand describes his book as “a drop in the ocean”. I think it may have potential to be more than that. The part of the book dealing with spiritual development has potential to be influential if it finds its way into the hands of sufficient numbers of people who are currently rudderless and yearning for inspiration.

I think contemplation of Legrand’s views on spiritual development has potential to enhance progress, viewed as the growth of opportunities for individuals to obtain the basic goods of flourishing humans. After reading the book, some people might be more inclined to wise and well-informed self-direction, healthy living, improved inter-personal relations, living in harmony with nature, and adoption of behaviors that enhance psychological well-being.

However, Legrand’s attack on “the current development path” invites further restrictions on economic freedom which would impact negatively on growth of productivity and hence on growth of opportunities for human flourishing. As outlined in the following paragraph in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I see declining rates of productivity growth as a major threat to growth of opportunities for human flourishing:

“This chapter has focused on the threats posed by climate change, declining productivity growth, and problems with democracy. I do not dismiss the longer-term threat posed by climate change, but in my view, there are stronger reasons for concern about the more immediate threat posed by declining productivity growth. Individuals, firms, and governments are taking action to mitigate climate change, and their efforts seems likely to accelerate before adaptation becomes excessively costly. There are fewer grounds for optimism that governments will deal with emerging economic problems (of their own making) in time to avert the widespread misery that is likely to follow from looming economic crises.”

As explained in my book, my optimism about action to mitigate climate change rests on signs that the polycentric approach, proposed by Elinor Ostrom in 2009, is now being adopted successfully.

I am not greatly troubled by the thought that some readers of Thomas Legrand’s book may be persuaded to adopt economic and political views that are inimical to productivity growth. There is an ocean full of views on public policy that are similar to those which he advocates, so I don’t think his additional drop will have a significant direct impact on policies adopted. Hopefully, his book’s endorsement of Elinor Ostrom’s approach will encourage some readers to explore her views in greater detail.

My bottom line: The net impact of “The Politics of Being” will be to support the growth of opportunities for human flourishing.


Monday, November 21, 2022

Does voting just encourage them?

 

A couple of weeks ago the thought struck me that it was about time I wrote something about the personal ethics of voting. That turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated.

At first, I thought that I should argue that it is unethical to vote because politics is a dirty business. As a person who often espouses principles of libertarianism and decentralism (see the preceding post on this blog) I see voting as akin to online shopping with known fraudsters – you know that the package of goods they deliver will never be the same as the one you thought you were buying. You should avoid shopping with known fraudsters, and you should avoid voting because whoever you vote for a politician will be elected.

Then I thought of some problems with that analogy. What happens if you really need the goods that the politicians are advertising? Who will mend the potholes in your road if you don’t vote for a politician who promises to get it done? Perhaps you might tell me that you and your neighbours could organise a working bee and do it yourself. Good idea!

However, if you don’t vote, who will restrain government spending? I expect that the more cynical among you will respond that no-one will restrain government spending, irrespective of whether you vote, or who you vote for.


When my reasoning took me to that point, I couldn’t immediately think of an appropriate response. That was when I decided that to bring clarity to my mind I should read again the book, “Don’t Vote – It just encourages the bastards, by the late, great P J O’Rourke.  My discussion of the book provides only a small sample of the humor and wisdom in it. Despite having been written over 12 years ago, the book contains insightful comments about people who are still on the political stage in America, including Donald Trump. However, that is somewhat tangential to the focus of this article.

You might think that this book would make a strong case against voting, but the old saying about not judging a book by its cover does seems to apply in this instance. O’Rourke suggests that voting does have a purpose: “We vote to throw the bastards out”.  The problem, as I see it, is that when enough voters manage to persuade each other to vote to throw politicians out of office, that doesn’t establish a regime of peaceful human flourishing without any interfering politicians. Voters throw out one lot of politicians by voting another lot into office.

One of the funniest parts of the book is a listing of the personality characteristics of people who are drawn to politics. The first item on the list is “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity”. After listing 9 other characteristics, O’Rourke acknowledges that he has just quoted from the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.

Nevertheless, O’Rourke acknowledges that “individual politicians are, after all, individuals like the rest of us and should be judged individually”:

“It would be wrong—very tempting, but wrong—to think of them all as simply bastards”.

He elaborates:

“I’ve spent some time with politicians. I like politicians. I’m friends with politicians from both sides of the aisle. Politicians are fine until they stick their noses into things they don’t understand, such as most things. Then politicians turn into rachet-jawed purveyors of monkey doodle and baked wind.”

Unfortunately, I must agree. The politicians I have met personally have all been likeable. When you meet them, they seem to be pleasant people (perhaps in the same way that the scammers who seek my friendship on Facebook often seem pleasant). A few politicians I have met even had their hearts and heads in the right places. The one who comes to mind most readily is Bert Kelly, an Australian politician whom I have written about previously.

Sometimes when I see a politician performing on TV, I wonder how a nice person like her, or him, ended up like that – I mean, like a bad actor saying things they don't believe. The fact that their future political careers are at stake is no consolation.

Is there something inherently evil about politics? O’Rourke writes:

“Maybe politics is inherently evil. Maybe politics is so evil that anything we do for it, even attempting to supply it with morality, just feeds the beast. I trust this isn’t true but I can’t say the thought doesn’t trouble me.”

That thought troubles me, too.

In his discussion of morality in politics, O’Rourke introduces (on page 88) the Venn diagram, reproduced at the top of this article. He drew the two circles to intersect, implying that there can be such a thing as moral political behavior.

It seems to me to be appropriate to maintain some optimism about democratic political processes. They don’t do much to protect our liberty and pursuit of happiness, but not many of us would freely choose to live under any of the available alternative forms of government. Many people claimed that democracy could not exist as a permanent form of government because it would not take long for citizens to learn that they could vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury. Indeed, that is largely what democratic politics has been about for as long as it has existed. Yet democracy survives! Perhaps democracy’s secret of success has been the existence of sufficient voters and politicians who have been willing to stop playing politics when crises have become imminent.

I often wish that I could be apolitical, but O’Rourke has persuaded me that is not practicable:

“The democratic political process is like the process of our children going through adolescence. There’s not much we can do to improve it and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We cannot, however, just declare ourselves to be apolitical any more than we can declare ourselves to be “aparental.” Here are the car keys, son. Dad’s stash is in the nightstand drawer. Why don’t you take my ATM card while you’re at it? See you when you’re thirty.”

It certainly appears that there is not much that we, as individuals, can do to change the outcomes of the political process. The chance that your vote will be decisive is miniscule. But people do talk about politics and influence one another about how they will cast their votes. Paradoxically, even those of us who would like to be apolitical can make a difference if we decide that we don’t like the direction that politics is taking and choose to vote.

Before concluding, I should offer a personal explanation about the relevance of the personal ethics of voting to me, as a person who lives in a country where voting is compulsory. It is possible to choose not to vote in Australia without displaying a great deal of courage. It is possible to attend a polling place, chat with your neighbours, eat a “democracy sausage”, exchange greetings with people offering “how to vote” literature, have your name ticked off on the voting roll, be handed voting papers, and still not cast a valid vote. In a secret ballot, no-one knows what you write on the voting papers before you put them into the ballot boxes.

Conclusion

When I began writing this article, I was not sure whether I would end up persuading myself to vote, or to have nothing to do with the political process. P J O’Rourke helped me to persuade myself that there is such a thing as moral political behavior.

Democratic politics is certainly a dirty business. It doesn’t do much to protect liberty or the pursuit of happiness, but most of us would choose to put up with democratic immorality rather than to live under any of the currently available alternative forms of governance. Paradoxically, the survival of democracies may be attributable to the willingness of sufficient numbers of voters and politicians to refrain from playing politics – to stop raiding the public treasury - when crises become imminent.

Although the chances of an individual vote being decisive are miniscule, individuals do influence one another in how they cast their votes. Individuals who don’t like the way politics is heading are more likely to improve outcomes if they choose to vote and encourage other like-minded people to do likewise, rather than choosing to refrain from having anything to do with the political process.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Are you also a decentralist?

 


Max Borders shares his personal philosophy of life in his book, The Decentralist: Mission, morality and meaning in the age of crypto. His aim in doing that it to persuade readers to become decentralists.


I decided that I was already a decentralist before I had finished reading the introduction. The fundamental point is that decentralism is required because individuals need to pursue happiness in different ways. The mission of decentralists is to create conditions for radical pluralism – a garden of forking paths. Sometimes we flourish by walking together; at other times we need to take different paths in order to flourish. The garden of forking paths creates opportunities for people to blaze different trails.

There is no easily accessible summary of the main principles of decentralism espoused in the book, so I have attempted to write one:

  • In navigating our lives, we recognize the existence of centralized political authority while fostering parallel consent-based systems which have potential to underthrow (rather than overthrow) centralized authority.
  • We choose persuasion in preference to compulsion.
  • To better govern ourselves and to communicate with moral suasion, we recognize that human minds are governed by emotion and instinctual energy, as well as by reason.
  • We create and foster “flow systems” with a high degree of flexibility and eschew attempting to control or regulate society.
  • We advocate an evolving technological ecosystem that can bring about a decentralized transformation in governance, finance, enterprise, aid, and even defence.
  • We aspire to moral practice (excellent character) that encompasses non-violence, integrity, compassion, stewardship, and rationality.
  • We advocate the daily practice of mindfulness to help guide us in our commitments to realize the consensual society.
  • We believe that the potential for widespread acceptance of the values of decentralism is the culmination of humanity’s stepwise journey from a focus on survival values, through a range of intermediate stages which have provided expanding opportunities for human flourishing.
  • We accept and seek to apply the principles of a free market.
  • We seek to make our lives meaningful at an individual level by learning to tell the “story of me” (Who? What? Why? Where? How? When?) and at a social level, “the story of us” (development, mutual understandings, shared conceptions of the good).

I agree with those principles. Max Borders persuaded me a few years ago to look forward to the social singularity. Hopefully the ethical principles he advocates for the age of crypto will help that vision to be achieved.

Some ideas in The Decentralist seem to me to be wacky but they are not central to the ethos of decentralism. I strongly disagree with the suggestion that we should dispense with “the idea of truth as something to be discovered in the world instead of experienced by the subject” (p 123). An untrue story is not made true by being widely accepted and told frequently. We cannot prevent reality from biting our bums merely by embracing delusions about it.

The book is easy to read. The digital gimmicky of the presentation style will no doubt appeal to many readers. Each chapter elaborates a number of concepts corresponding to the chapter number. So, in Chapter 1, we have “one revolution”, in Chapter 2, “two hands”, in Chapter 3, “three governors”, and so forth. Those who would prefer to read a book covering a similar range of issues, and advancing similar views using a more conventional style of scholarly discussion, are welcome to read my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

From my perspective, the most interesting chapter of The Decentralist is Chapter 3, which considers implications for communication of classifying people as thinkers, relaters, and movers, depending on whether their minds are governed primarily by their heads, their hearts, or gut instincts. I had previously been introduced to the idea that humans have brains in hearts and guts as well as heads, and should seek alignment between them. When we speak metaphorically of following our hearts, keeping cool heads, and being gutsy, we are expressing ideas that are deeply entrenched in human culture (and even anatomy, perhaps). I was also aware of marketing techniques appealing to emotion and instinct. However, I had not previously given explicit consideration to the potential for normal persuasive communications to benefit from attention to emotional and instinctive needs of readers, as well as to their need to be given reasons to change their minds.

This book, itself, combines appeals to emotion, reason, and instinct in persuasive communication. For example, the introduction appeals to emotion in its discussion of an individual’s desire to be happy, it appeals to reason in its discussion of broader aspects of human flourishing, and it appeals to instinct in recognizing the importance of action in pursuit of the differing goals of individuals. The metaphor of a garden of forking paths seems to me to be a wonderful way to combine those concepts.

Conclusion

The Decentralist strongly supports the view that individuals have greatest opportunities to flourish under conditions where they are free to choose for themselves which path to take. The personal philosophy that Max Borders espouses in this book will hopefully persuade many more people to adopt the ethics of decentralism.


Tuesday, September 13, 2022

What happened to creative capitalism?

 


The question I have posed above strikes me as being delightfully ambiguous. It could be asking what happened to bring to an end the era in which creative capitalism brought about high rates of productivity growth. Alternatively, it could be asking what happened to the concept of “creative capitalism” that Bill Gates presented to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2008.

My focus here is on the second interpretation, but I will end up discussing what has happened to the creativity of capitalism in the more traditional sense.

Why am I interested in the particular form of corporate social responsibility (CSR) that Bill Gates referred to as “creative capitalism”? I don’t hear the Gates concept being much talked about these days, but I think that variants of this form of CSR have become more common over the last decade or so. It is worth considering whether Gates’ approach to CSR is changing corporate sectors in ways that may directly hamper the traditional creativity of capitalism, or indirectly hamper it via impacts on economic policies pursued by governments.


That is why I decided that the time had come to read Creative Capitalism, a book edited by Michael Kinsley, which was published in 2008. The book consists mainly of comments by eminent economists on the “creative capitalism” concept that Bill Gates presented to the WEF. I should confess at this point that deciding to read the book didn’t require me to judge that it might be worth buying. A copy was given to me last year by a friend who was downsizing his library. The book was sitting in my “unread” pile for many months waiting for me to show some interest. I am now glad I read it!

In the next section I will outline Gates’ concept and briefly discuss the different reactions of economists writing 14 years ago. That will be followed by consideration of possible consequences of changes in the nature of capitalism that seem to stem from Gates’ concept and similar ideas.

Gates’ concept

Bill Gates advocated a new approach to capitalism in which businesses would give more attention to recognition and reputation. As he put it:

Recognition enhances a company’s reputation and appeals to customers; above all it attracts good people to the organisation. As such, recognition triggers a market-based reward for good behavior.”

Gates advanced this view in the context of considering how self-interest could be harnessed to provide more rapid improvement in the well-being of poor people. However, pursuit of recognition seems to have become a strong motivator for the environmental and social objectives that are increasingly espoused by corporates. Gates does not mention the potential for pursuit of recognition for good behavior to have a positive influence on investors, but that also seems to have emerged as an important factor in recent years.

My review of the contributions of commentators is highly selective. I just focus here on what I see as the main points that were raised.

Some of the commentators suggested that entrepreneurs with philanthropic objectives might do better to do what Gates did, rather than to follow the approach he advocated in his speech to the WEF. Like some others before him, Gates pursued profits until he become extraordinarily wealthy and then established a foundation to pursue philanthropic objectives. An argument in support of that approach is that the pursuit of multiple “bottom lines” by companies adds to the difficulty of measuring their performance to ensure that executives can be held accountable for outcomes. 

Several of the commentators referred to Milton Friedman’s view, in Capitalism and Freedom, that CSR is a “fundamentally subversive doctrine” because, in a free society, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud” (p 133).

However, others pointed out that Gates’ proposal is consistent with a free society because he was suggesting that corporates can obtain a market-based reward for choosing to pursue non-pecuniary objectives of employees and consumers. Similarly, it is consistent with a free society for companies to seek to pursue non-pecuniary objectives of the shareholders who own them.

Consequences

It is likely that an increasing tendency for corporates to pursue non-pecuniary objectives would have a negative impact on measured productivity growth. However, that may be largely a problem in the measurement of productivity. Measures of productivity growth are biased to the extent that output indicators do not incorporate non-pecuniary goods that contribute human flourishing. If corporates are efficient vehicles for the pursuit of the non-pecuniary objectives of their shareholders, employees, and customers, it seems reasonable to suppose that pursuit of those objectives would contribute to the flourishing of the people concerned.

“The unknown ideal”

What happens if a company is not an efficient vehicle for the pursuit of the non-pecuniary objectives of its shareholders, employees, and customers?

In considering this question it is important to recognize that corporate sectors consist of large numbers of individual firms which compete for labor, capital, and customers. Individual firms are free to give different weight to different objectives. Some may see their only role as profit maximization, and may even seek recognition by asserting that they see that as a social responsibility. Others may seek a reputation for social responsibility by undertaking marketing exercises, without changing their practices. At the other extreme, some companies may devote themselves largely to pursuit of one or more non-pecuniary objectives, providing only minimal financial returns to shareholders.

It is customary for economists to assert that the market is capable of weeding out firms that are following inefficient strategies. Applying the usual market test, it appears reasonable to suppose that if individual companies pursuing the non-pecuniary objectives of workers, consumers, and shareholders are able to survive, the strategies they are following must pass the market’s efficiency test.

The Hayek quote at the top of this article is followed by his assertion that the argument for liberty rests on “the belief that it will, on balance, release more forces for the good than for the bad” (Constitution of Liberty, p 31). In considering how best to describe the spontaneous order of a free society, Hayek later suggested that capitalism “is an appropriate name at most for the partial realization of such a system in a certain historical phase, but always misleading because it suggests a system which mainly benefits the capitalists, while in fact it is a system which imposes upon enterprise a discipline under which the managers chafe and which each endeavours to escape” (“Law, Legislation, and Liberty”, V1, p 62)

The corporatist quagmire

Unfortunately, in the real world at present, the ability of the market to weed out inefficient firms and the strategies they adopt is greatly hindered by government intervention and expectations of future government intervention. If firms believe that pursuit of certain goals will be rewarded by governments, they have an incentive to establish reputations for pursuing those goals. Firms also have an incentive to seek government assistance as a reward for good behavior. The increasing prevalence of such interactions has led to the development of corporatist, rent-seeking cultures that have contributed to a long-term decline in rates of productivity growth in high-income countries.

It is also important to note that, in the realm of politics, what some people view as good behavior is often viewed in a different light by others. For example, political opinions differ on whether or not it is good for pension funds to take account of environmental policies in their allocation of funds. Investors are often uncertain about which view will prevail in the political arena. Such economic policy uncertainty adds to the normal commercial risks of investment. An example which comes readily to mind is the impact of policy uncertainty on future investment in gas-fired electricity generation in industrialized countries. Normal commercial considerations might suggest that is likely to be a profitable investment to meet demand for electricity when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, but investors have to contend with the possibility that further regulatory interventions to discourage use of fossil fuels will render such investment unprofitable. It is reasonable to predict that blackouts will be more common in jurisdictions where such policy uncertainty prevails.

Political ideologies of governments also seem to be changing in ways that make it more difficult for markets to weed out firms adopting inefficient strategies. Over the last decade or so, the progressive side of politics has encouraged corporates to establish reputations for “woke progressivism”. That seems to have induced political conservatives to become increasingly disenchanted with corporates. That disenchantment has added to the antagonism associated with the increased tendency of many conservatives to espouse economic nationalism and populist views opposed to the corporate sector’s interest in free trade, international capital mobility, and technological progress.

As politics comes to play an increasing role in the investment decisions of businesses, economic growth rates of industrialized countries are likely to decline. Since governments find it difficult to disappoint the expectations of voters, government spending is unlikely to be constrained to a correspond extent. Major economic crises seem likely to become more common. (I have discussed these issues more fully in Chapter 6 of Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.)  

The obvious solution

Immediately after the passage in which Milton Friedman suggested that the social responsibility of business was to serve the interests of stockholders, he suggested that the social responsibility of union leaders is to serve the interests of their members. He then went on to write:

It is the responsibility of the rest of us to establish a framework of law such that an individual in pursuing his own interest is, to quote Adam Smith … “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. …” (Capitalism and Freedom, p 133).

Unfortunately, it seems likely that major economic crises will need to be endured before governments of industrialized countries once again see merit in confining themselves to core responsibilities in the manner that Adam Smith suggested.

Conclusion

Companies are increasingly choosing to adopt strategies to improve their reputations with employees, customers, and investors who have interests in social and environmental issues. That would not pose a problem in the context of the spontaneous order of a free society. Pursuit of multiple objectives may add to problems in holding executives accountable for an individual firm’s performance, but free markets are capable of weeding out firms that follow inefficient strategies.

Unfortunately, however, industrialized countries are now corporatist quagmires in which the ability of markets to weed out firms that adopt inefficient strategies is greatly hindered by government intervention and expectations of future government intervention. The obvious solution is to reduce government intervention in markets, but major economic crises will probably need to be endured before that happens.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

How should Bill Carmichael's transparency project be pursued now?

 


Unfortunately, few readers of this blog will know anything about Bill Carmichael or his transparency project. My main purpose here is therefore to explain who he was and why the question I have posed above is worth considering.

W.B. (Bill) Carmichael died recently at the age of 93. In his obituary,  Gary Banks, former chair of the Australian Productivity Commission, described Bill aptly as “an unsung hero” of the Australian Public Service (APS).

In my experience, most members of the APS who are working on economic policy like to claim that they are contributing to the well-being of the public at large. However, I find it difficult to accept such claims unless the people concerned can demonstrate that they are actively seeking to either undo mistakes that governments have made, or to discourage governments from making more mistakes.

Bill Carmichael made a huge contribution in helping to undo mistakes that Australian governments made over many decades in insulating much of the economy from international competition. His efforts in support of trade liberalization have helped Australians to enjoy greater benefits from trade and greater productivity growth than would otherwise have been possible.

Alf Rattigan’s right-hand man

Bill’s contribution to trade liberalization was largely behind the scenes, helping Alf Rattigan, the former chairman of the Tariff Board, to pursue his reform efforts. Rattigan argued successfully that tariff reform was required because industries that had been given high levels of government assistance to compete with imports were inherently less efficient users of resources than those requiring lower levels of assistance or none at all.

As Gary Banks’ obituary indicates, Bill played an important role in developing strategies, writing the key speeches that Alf Rattigan delivered, dealing with difficult bureaucrats, and engaging with economic journalists who were highly influential in informing politicians and the public about the costs of protection and the benefits of international competition. Bill’s contribution reached its pinnacle in the early 1970s when the Industries Assistance Commission (IAC) was established with an economy-wide mandate to ensure greater transparency to processes for provision of government assistance to all industries.

Bill eventually became chairman of the IAC. However, in my view, his most important contribution was made in helping to establish the organisation and ensure that it had access to the professional economic expertise it required to undertake research and produce quality reports.

Bill’s transparency project

Bill Carmichael’s interest in the transparency of trade policy did not end after he retired from the IAC in 1988. My reference to Bill’s transparency project relates specifically to the efforts he made during his retirement to bring greater transparency to trade negotiations. These efforts were made in collaboration with Greg Cutbush, Malcolm Bosworth, and other economists. The best way to describe that project is to quote some passages from an article in which Bill suggested that Australians are being misled about our trade negotiations and agreements. The article, entitled ‘Trade Policy Lessons from Australia’,  was published by East Asia Forum in 2016.

Bill wrote:

The goal of trade policy is not limited to increasing export opportunities. Nor is it just about improving trade balances. Rather trade policy is about taking opportunities to improve the economy’s productive base. When assessing a nation’s experience with bilateral trade agreements, this is the test that should be applied.

In each bilateral agreement Australia has completed to date, projections of the potential gains for Australia, based on unimpeded access to all markets of the other country involved, were released prior to negotiations. These studies did not, and could not, project what was actually achieved in the ensuing negotiations. The quite modest outcomes for Australia from those negotiations meant the projected gains conveyed nothing about what was eventually achieved. Yet the projections were still quoted to support the agreements after they were signed, as though they reflected actual outcomes.

This approach to accounting for the outcome of trade agreements has meant that Australia has missed opportunities for productivity gains. So how, given Australia’s recent experiences, can trade policy and negotiations be better conducted in future?

Australia cannot change how it negotiated its agreements with the United States, Japan, South Korea and China. But policymakers can refine their approach to future negotiations. Australia’s trade policy should be guided by a model based on its conduct in the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations. The Uruguay Round confirmed that the domestic decisions needed to secure gains from unilateral liberalisation and those required to secure the full gains available from negotiations have converged.

The negotiations in the Uruguay Round took place at a time when former prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were reducing Australia’s barriers to trade unilaterally. Their productivity-enhancing reforms were subsequently offered and accepted in the Uruguay negotiations as Australia’s contribution to global trade reform. Consequently, Australia secured all the gains available from trade negotiations: the major gains in productivity from reducing the barriers protecting less competitive industries, as well as securing greater access to external markets.

This was the kind of win–win outcome negotiators should seek from all trade agreements. It made a substantial contribution to the prosperity Australia has since enjoyed. 

In future trade negotiations, the Productivity Commission — Australia’s independent policy review institution — could provide a basis for market-opening offers by conducting a public inquiry and reporting to government before negotiations get underway.”

In a subsequent paper, publicly endorsed by a group of trade economists, Bill argued:

“If we are to close the gap between trade diplomacy and economic reality, we need to respect three lessons from experience: first, a major part of our gains from trade agreements depends on what we take to the negotiating table, not what we hope to take away from it ; second, liberalising through trade negotiations cannot be pursued simply as an extension of foreign policy ; and third, … future bilateral agreements should be subject to cost-benefit analysis before ratification.”

How should Bill’s project be pursued?

I raise this question without much optimism that greater transparency of trade policy can be achieved in the short term. There is no more reason to be optimistic that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will suddenly become receptive to ideas that challenge its claims about the benefits of trade agreements it has negotiated than there was to be optimistic that its predecessor, the Department of Trade and Industry, would be receptive in the 1960s to the ideas of Rattigan and Carmichael which challenged the protectionist orthodoxy of that department. Added to this, it is difficult to ignore signs that protectionist sentiment is on the rise again in Australia in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic and fears that a further deterioration in international relations could lead to disruption of international shipping.

Nevertheless, as Bill might say, none of that should stop us from pursuing longer-term goals.  I hope that some people reading this will feel motivated to think constructively about how Bill Carmichael’s transparency project could be pursued as a longer-term exercise in institutional reform.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

How did a trading company come to rule India?

 


Spencer went on to suggest that trade would have been more successful in the absence of the privileges that the British government had conferred on the East India Company (EIC):

“Insane longing for empire would never have burdened the Company with the enormous debt which at present paralyzes it. The energy that has been expended in aggressive wars would have been employed in developing the resources of the country. Unenervated by monopolies, trade would have been much more successful.”  

Prior to my recent visit to India I was aware that classical liberals like Herbert Spencer were critical of the East India Company. Since my visit I have become an expert on all matters pertaining to Indian history. Just joking!

I can only claim to be able to sketch the outlines of the story of how the EIC ended up ruling India. I think the story is worth telling as a case study of the unintended consequences of government intervention in international trade.

Spencer was correct in identifying the importance of the EIC’s links to the British government as an important determinant of its behavior, but the context in which it operated also needs to be taken into account.  The most important element of context seems to me to the rivalry between European powers to obtain advantage in trade with India.

Portugal came first.

Perhaps you can recall from school history lessons that Vasco da Gama sailed to India around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. This was the culmination of voyages of discovery by Portuguese sailors, including the important contribution of Bartolomeu Diaz, who had rounded the Cape some years earlier.


The Portuguese government was heavily involved in this exploration, and in what followed. In his book, The Portuguese in India, M.N. Pearson relates how the king, D. Manuel, invited da Gama to command the expedition when the latter happened to wander through the council chamber where the king was reading documents.

After da Gama’s voyage, the Portuguese court debated whether they should use force to seek a monopoly in the Indian Ocean or be peaceful traders. They chose force. Their aim was to try to monopolize the supply of spices to Europe and to control and tax other Asian trade. There was, of course, a great deal of trade in the Indian Ocean prior to Portuguese intervention, much of it controlled by Muslims (from India as well as the Middle East).

The Portuguese built forts in India to protect their trading activities. Some local rulers saw advantage in giving the Portuguese permission to establish forts, but they often used force. Goa was conquered in 1510. The Portuguese obtained permission to build a fort at Diu in 1535 (and had ceded to them the islands that today form Mumbai) because the sultan of Gujarat, Bahadur Shar, wanted Portuguese help after being defeated by the Mughal emperor, Humayon. The Portuguese obtained Daman from the sultan in 1559 and immediately began construction of the fort at Moti Daman. Building of St Jerome fort (my photo below) commenced in 1614, but was not completed until 1672.


The Dutch eclipsed the Portuguese early in the 17th century.

The Portuguese were unable to prevent competition from the Dutch because the latter were “better financed, better armed, and more numerous”. The Dutch blockaded Goa from 1638 to 1644 and again from 1656 to 1663.

The Dutch East India Company was founded by the Dutch government in 1602, not long after the English formed the EIC. Both organisations were granted trade monopolies, and combined private investment and the powers of the state in a similar manner.

In the early 18th century there was fierce rivalry between the Dutch and English over the spice trade in Indonesia. That ended with the English quietly withdrawing from most of their interests in Indonesia to focus elsewhere, including India.

The transformation of British activities in India

In the 17th century, the EIC established trading posts in Surat, Madras, Bombay and Calcutta with permission from local authorities. The French India Company offered increasing competition during the latter half of the 17th century and into the 18th century.

The initial objectives of both the EIC and the French were commercial, but their conflicts in Europe spilled over into India. The British sought to fortify Fort William in Calcutta against potential attack from the French. In 1756, the French encouraged the nawab of Bengal to attack Fort William. After the fall of Fort William, the surviving British soldiers and Indian sepoys were imprisoned overnight in a dungeon where many died from suffocation and heat exhaustion. The prison became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. The number of fatalities is disputed, but the incident seems to have provided impetus for the EIC to seek to wield greater political power in India to protect its commercial interests.

My photo of the Black Hole monument in the grounds of St John’s church in Kolkata.

 

EIC forces led by Robert Clive (Clive of India) retook Calcutta in 1757 and went on to defeat the nawab and his French supporters at Plassey. Clive’s victory was aided by a secret agreement with Bengal aristocrats which resulted in a large portion of the nawab's army being led away from the battlefield. The person responsible for this treachery, Mir Jafar, was rewarded by being installed as nawab. Clive rewarded himself and EIC forces from the Bengal Treasury.

A few years later, as governor of Bengal, Clive arranged for the EIC to collect land tax revenues in Bengal by appointing a deputy nawab for this purpose. The conquest of other parts of India was planned and directed from Calcutta. Amartya Sen has noted:

“The profits made by the East India Company from its economic operations in Bengal financed, to a great extent, the wars that the British waged across India in the period of their colonial expansion.”

Consequences and responses

The worst consequences of EIC rule became evident during the Bengal famine of 1770. The company was apparently more concerned to maintain land tax revenue than to relieve to the suffering of peasants.  Its policies contributed to the massive loss of life during the famine. Adam Smith presumably had that in mind when he suggested in Wealth of Nations:

“No other sovereigns ever were, or, from the nature of things, ever could be so perfectly indifferent about the happiness or misery of their subjects, the improvement or waste of their dominions, the glory or disgrace of their administration; as, from irresistible moral causes, the greater part of the proprietors of such a mercantile company are, and necessarily must be.” (V.i.e 26)

By reducing the agricultural labor available to generate taxable income, the famine caused the EIC to experience a subsequent loss of revenue. The British government provided financial relief to the company but arranged to supervise it. Regulation of the EIC was further increased in 1784, when British prime minister William Pitt the Younger, legislated for joint government of British India by the EIC and the government, with the government holding the ultimate authority.

The British government seems to have been engaged in an ongoing balancing act to placate both supporters of the EIC, including investors and former employees, and its critics, including prominent individuals like Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.  

Pitt’s India Act stated that to pursue schemes of conquest and extension of dominion in India are “measures repugnant to the wish, the honour and the policy of this nation”. Perhaps that was an honest statement of the British government’s policy objective, but it is doubtful that it had any impact on the extension of British dominion in India.

Fortune seekers

During the 18th century, India was seen as offering opportunities for young British men to obtain a fortune, become well-connected, and to marry well.

Lachlan Macquarie, who (in my opinion) ultimately become one of the best of Australia’s colonial governors, expressed views, while a young army officer serving in India, that may have been fairly typical.


In his biography of Macquarie, M. H. Ellis notes that in 1788 Pitt and his followers had cramped the style of young army officers in India by reducing their allowances. Macquarie recorded in his diary: “ … our golden dreams, and the flattering prospects we had formed to ourselves in Britain, of soon making our fortunes in the East, must now all vanish into smoke; and we must content ourselves, with merely being able to exist without running into debt” (p 18).

Macquarie’s hopes for a change in fortune rested on being called to active service. He had his wish during the third Anglo-Mysore war. The war ended after the 1792 Siege of Seringapatam led to the signing of a Treaty in which Tipu Sultan surrendered half of his kingdom to the EIC and its allies. Macquarie noted that news of the cessation of hostilities “damped the spirits of every one who wished the downfall of the Tyrant and hoped to have the satisfaction in a few days more, of storming his capital”. The storming of Tipu’s capital would presumably have offered the prospect of looting, but Governor-General Cornwallis managed to maintain the morale of his troops by announcing payment of a “handsome gratuity in lieu of prize money”.   (Ellis, p 39)

India’s civil wars

Disunity within India was another important element of the context in which the EIC ended up ruling India. British colonial expansion occurred at a time when the power of the Mughal empire was declining, with much of its territory falling under the control of the Marathas. In the south of India, the rulers of Mysore and Travancore were also powerful. The EIC sided with different rulers in different locations at different times. For example, at the time of the Third Anglo-Mysore War, referred to above, the Marathas were allies of the EIC. That war occurred because Tipu, an ally of France, had invaded the nearby state of Travancore, which was a British ally.

Why did EIC rule end?

In 1813 the EIC lost its monopoly over British trade with India. The opening of access to competing traders seems to have been partly attributable to growth of the free trade lobby in Britain.  

In 1833, the EIC was reduced to the status of a managing agency for the British government of India. The government took over the company’s debts and obligations, which were to be serviced and paid from tax revenue raised in India.

EIC rule of India finally ended following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which is now also referred to as the First War of Independence. I took this photo at an Indian airport.

 


Colonial rule was formally transferred to the Crown in the person of Queen Victoria in 1858. The British government took over the Indian possessions, administrative powers and machinery, and the armed forces of the EIC.

In my view, EIC rule ended because the company had a hopeless business model. The company was obviously successful in conducting wars in India, and some employees of the company made fortunes as a consequence. But the company’s attempts to service debts incurred by imposing taxes on the people of India were inherently problematic. Such taxes made it inevitable that the company would incur high ongoing costs to put down rebellions. The EIC’s conquest of Bengal raised expectations that colonial rule might be a profitable activity for the company, but it became incapable of surviving without government financial backing only a few years later.

Was a better option possible?

 John Stuart Mill - in his role as a spin doctor employed by the EIC rather than an eminent philosopher - opened his last ditch defence of the EIC by pointing out that at the same time as the company acquired a “magnificent empire in the East” for Britain “a succession of administrations under the control of Parliament were losing to the Crown of Great Britain another great empire on the opposite side of the Atlantic”. (Mill is quoted more fully by Richard Reeves in John Stuart Mill, Victorian Firebrand, p 258.)

Mill was obviously attempting to present a persuasive case to British politicians at a time when most of them perceived “empire” to be a desirable objective.

These days, people who want to defend the empire-building activities of the EIC in India are more likely to suggest that the institutional legacy of British rule, including a united India (if you overlook the tragedy of partition) would otherwise not have been possible. Amartya Sen has pointed out the weakness of that argument:

“Certainly, when Clive’s East India Company defeated the nawab of Bengal in 1757, there was no single power ruling over all of India. Yet it is a great leap from the proximate story of Britain imposing a single united regime on India (as did actually occur) to the huge claim that only the British could have created a united India out of a set of disparate states.

That way of looking at Indian history would go firmly against the reality of the large domestic empires that had characterised India throughout the millennia. …”

Summing up

The East India Company came to rule India as an unintended consequence of British government intervention seeking trading advantages over other European powers. This intervention occurred against the background of previous involvement in Indian trade by Portuguese and Dutch governments, and in the context of intense rivalry with the French government’s trading company.

The East India Company’s schemes of conquest and dominion were made possible by disunity within India, which provided it with opportunistic allies. However, the company’s business model of taxing subjugated Indians was not capable of generating sufficient revenue to service debts incurred in subjugating them and maintaining order. Rather than let the company fail, the British government became increasingly involved in directing its activities, and ultimately displaced it.