Rolling Back Government
Lessons from New Zealand
The following is adapted from a lecture delivered on February 11, 2004, on the Hillsdale campus, during a five-day seminar on “The Conditions of Free-Market Capitalism,” co-sponsored by the Center for Constructive Alternatives and the Ludwig von Mises Lecture Series.
If we look back through history, growth in government has been a modern phenomenon. Beginning in the 1850s and lasting until the 1920s or ’30s, the government’s share of GDP in most of the world’s industrialized economies was about six percent. From that period onwards – and particularly since the 1950s – we’ve seen a massive explosion in government share of GDP, in some places as much as 35-45 percent. (In the case of Sweden, of course, it reached 65 percent, and Sweden nearly self-destructed as a result. It is now starting to dismantle some of its social programs to remain economically viable.) Can this situation be halted or even rolled back? My view, based upon personal experience, is that the answer is “yes.” But it requires high levels of transparency and significant consequences for bad decisions – and these are not easy things to bring about.
What we’re seeing around the world at the moment is what I would call a silent revolution, reflected in a change in how people view government accountability. The old idea of accountability simply held that government should spend money in accordance with appropriations. The new accountability is based on asking, “What did we get in public benefits as a result of the expenditure of money?” This is a question that has always been asked in business, but has not been the norm for governments. And those governments today that are struggling valiantly with this question are showing quite extraordinary results. This was certainly the basis of the successful reforms in my own country of New Zealand.
New Zealand’s per capita income in the period prior to the late 1950s was right around number three in the world, behind the United States and Canada. But by 1984, its per capita income had sunk to 27th in the world, alongside Portugal and Turkey. Not only that, but our unemployment rate was 11.6 percent, we’d had 23 successive years of deficits (sometimes ranging as high as 40 percent of GDP), our debt had grown to 65 percent of GDP, and our credit ratings were continually being downgraded. Government spending was a full 44 percent of GDP, investment capital was exiting in huge quantities, and government controls and micromanagement were pervasive at every level of the economy. We had foreign exchange controls that meant I couldn’t buy a subscription to The Economist magazine without the permission of the Minister of Finance. I couldn’t buy shares in a foreign company without surrendering my citizenship. There were price controls on all goods and services, on all shops and on all service industries. There were wage controls and wage freezes. I couldn’t pay my employees more – or pay them bonuses – if I wanted to. There were import controls on the goods that I could bring into the country. There were massive levels of subsidies on industries in order to keep them viable. Young people were leaving in droves.
Spending and Taxes
When a reform government was elected in 1984, it identified three problems: too much spending, too much taxing and too much government. The question was how to cut spending and taxes and diminish government’s role in the economy. Well, the first thing you have to do in this situation is to figure out what you’re getting for dollars spent. Towards this end, we implemented a new policy whereby money wouldn’t simply be allocated to government agencies; instead, there would be a purchase contract with the senior executives of those agencies that clearly delineated what was expected in return for the money.