Corruption makes people poor

Detroit predicts it will run out of cash in a week.  Who could have ever seen that coming?  When you don’t have your own currency – especially if that currency isn’t the world’s reserve currency – you run out of options more quickly.  Here’s Kevin D. Williamson in Detroit: The Moral of the Story

The Left’s answer to the deficit: raise taxes to protect spending. The Left’s answer to the weak economy: raise taxes to enable new spending. The Left’s answer to the looming sovereign-debt crisis: raise taxes to pay off old spending. For the Left, every deficit is a revenue-side problem, not a spending-side problem, and the solution to every economic problem is more spending, necessitating more taxes. The problem with that way of looking at things is called Detroit, which looks to be running out of money in about one week. Detroit is what liberalism’s end-game looks like… Detroit is evidence for the fact that the economic limitations on tax increases sometimes kick in before the political limitations do.

One lesson to learn from Detroit is that investing unions with coercive powers does not ensure future private-sector employment or the preservation of private-sector wages, despite liberal fairy tales to the contrary, nor do protectionist measures strengthen the long-term prospects of domestic firms competing in highly integrated global markets. We cannot legislate away comparative advantage or other facts of life

The second important lesson to be learned from Detroit is that there are hard limits on real tax increases, a fact that will be of more immediate significance in the national debate as our deficit and debt problems reach crisis stage. Even those of us who are relatively open to tax increases as a component of a long-term debt-reduction strategy must keep in mind that our current spending trend is putting us on an unsustainable course in which our outlays will far outpace our ability to collect taxes to pay for them, no matter where we set our theoretical tax rates. The IMF calculates that to maintain present spending trend the United States will have to nearly double (88 percent increase) all federal taxes to maintain theoretical solvency… At some point, the statutory tax increases will not increase actual revenue.  Even the best tax regimes are cannibalistic: Every tax is an incentive for the taxpayer to relocate to a more friendly jurisdiction…

The third lesson is moral. Detroit’s institutions have long been marked by corruption, venality, and self-serving. Healthy societies have high levels of trust. Who trusts Detroit? This is not angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff. People do not invest in firms, industries, cities, or countries they do not trust. Corruption makes people poor.  What is true of Detroit is true of the country. Our national public sector not only is bloated and parasitic, it is less effective, less responsible, and less honest than that of many other developed countries, including New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and Germany.

I am not an unreserved admirer of Transparency International’s global corruption-perceptions index, but I believe that it is in broad outline accurate. Liberals are inclined to learn the wrong lessons from the relative success of countries such as Canada or New Zealand, concluding that what we need is a bigger welfare state, government-run health care, etc. (Conservatives, for our part, tend to overemphasize the role of comparatively low taxes and light regulation in the success of countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong. Those are important, but there are other equally important factors.) In reality, there is a great diversity of health-care arrangements and social-spending levels among the countries that have more effective institutions than ours, while many countries with the sorts of institutions liberals admire (take Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal for starters) are in crisis, in significant part because of plain corruption. What the more successful countries tend to have in common is a public sector that is less intent on looting the fisc. …

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