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Just say no to government
Just say no to government

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This sticker celebrates one of the most brilliant and influential policymakers in modern history… though he would probably modestly disagree with such a description. Sir John James Cowperthwaite was very much a modest type of man, quiet and unassuming to look at. When he arrived in Hong Kong in 1945, smoke from World War II still clearing from the air, it is likely that most people took no notice of him at all.

Cowperthwaite was there at the behest of England’s ministry, worried about the state of the colony after a brutal occupation by Japan. His mission was to analyze the economic situation and make recommendations for government action during its recovery. But Cowperthwaite, who had a remarkable clarity of perception compared to most government bureaucrats, discovered that the economy of Hong Kong was recovering very nicely on its own and needed none of his – or the government’s – help.

By 1961, Cowperthwaite had been promoted to the Financial Secretary of Hong Kong. His reign over the colony was a headache to interventionists, a legend to libertarians. When approached by the business community to build a publicly-financed tunnel under the harbor, he refused. He insisted if a project was so valuable, private interests would fund it. (They eventually did.) He was scolded for not keeping accurate statistics on unemployment; he replied that the existence of such statistics would only encourage politicians to make mischief with them. While his bosses back home were scrambling to build the biggest socialist government west of the Berlin Wall, Cowperthwaite was saying “no” to tariffs, “no” to subsidies, and “no!” to any tax rate higher than 15%. His comments in a debate on the government budget in 1961:

“…in the long run the aggregate of decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgement in a free economy… is less likely to do harm than the centralized decisions of a government, and certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster.”

As writer P.J. O’Rourke has heartily recommended, words that ought to be tattooed on every legislator’s face. Sir Cowperthwaite was an avid disciple of his fellow Scot Adam Smith, and it is Hong Kong that has reaped the benefits. Wages doubled during his tenure and households under the poverty line went from 50% to 16%. For as long as the results have been tabulated, Hong Kong consistently tops the list in the Fraser Institue’s Economic Freedom of the World report. Cowperthwaite’s legacy of freedom shines on.