This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity.
John James Cowperthwaite was born on April 25 1915 and educated at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh. He went on to study Economics at St Andrews University and Christ's College, Cambridge, before joining the Colonial Administrative service in Hong Kong in 1941. During the Japanese occupation he was seconded to Sierra Leone.This is one man who had a significant role in the growth of Hong Kong from a small trading post to a prosperous manufacturing city. He gave the population freedom from excessive government interference and allowed them to get on with their lives, meaning that the government was really in a subsidiary role, a supporting role rather than the leader of the city-state.
Returning to Hong Kong in 1945, he was asked to find ways in which the government could boost post-war economic revival; but he found the economy recovering swiftly without intervention, and took the lesson to heart.
[..]Cowperthwaite was a classical free-trader in the tradition which stretched from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill and Gladstone, rather than a modern monetarist. He was also a seasoned colonial administrator, with a strong streak of common sense. But his achievement in Hong Kong was hailed by Milton Friedman and other free-market economists as a shining example of the potency of laissez-faire when carried through to its logical conclusions in almost every aspect of government. The Right-wing American commentator PJ O'Rourke called Cowperthwaite "a master of simplicities".
Cowperthwaite himself called his approach "positive non-intervention". Personal taxes were kept at a maximum of 15 per cent; government borrowing was wholly unacceptable; there were no tariffs or subsidies. Red tape was so reduced that a new company could be registered with a one-page form.
Cowperthwaite believed that government should concern itself with only minimal intervention on behalf of the most needy, and should not interfere in business. In his first budget speech he said: "In the long run, the aggregate of decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is less likely to do harm than the centralised decisions of a government, and certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster."
[..]Cowperthwaite summed up his part in the colony's success over the decade with some modesty: "I did very little. All I did was to try to prevent some of the things that might undo it."
The measure of that success was a 50 per cent rise in real wages, and a two-thirds fall in the number of households in acute poverty. Exports rose by 14 per cent a year, as Hong Kong evolved from a trading post to a major regional hub and manufacturing base.
[..]Cowperthwaite himself had a Gladstonian sense of obligation towards the least fortunate: he rejected the notion of tax relief on mortgage interest because it would have benefited the better-off and might have prejudiced "our maximum housing effort at the lower end of the scale".
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