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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Thursday November 30 2006

I don’t generally love conferences, but the latest weekend conference of the Libertarian Alliance was a bit special for me, if only because at it, I was able to ask Leon Louw to do a podcast interview with me, and on Monday morning of this week, that’s just what we did.

And it so happened that we had to hand an ideal subject to talk about, namely Leon Louw’s latest publication, which is entitled Habits of Highly Effective Countries: Lessons for South Africa.

It’s been a long time since I last felt so interested and impressed by anything, let alone anything that I was able to get within talking and interviewing distance of.  I earnestly urge you either to read the entire 62 page publication itself, or, if you are a slow and hard reader but an easy listener, to listen to the conversation that I had with Leon Louw last Monday.  Preferably both.  (I am afraid I failed to say the date of the conversation during the conversation.  For the record, it was Monday November 27th 2006.)

imageLeon Louw, the Executive Director of the Free Market Foundation of South Africa, is one of those people who is so charming, so attractive, so urbane and so friendly, that there is a danger that you will underestimate the substance behind the affable manner and the alert and entertaining mind.  Until Monday morning I had him tagged as a very smart guy and a smooth-as-silk operator, whom it is always a pleasure to meet and a delight to know, who has been doing, you know, worthy stuff in urging free market policies on reluctant politicians, but is, in the end, not one of the world’s major movers or shakers.  After the recorded conversation I had with him last Monday, I found myself thinking: Goodness, I just might have been talking to a Great Man, the sort of man who is later spoken of as one who changed the course of history for the better.

What came across most strongly was Leon’s absolute, fist clenched determination to distinguish between, on the one hand, what he would merely like to be true about what happens in well (and badly) governed countries, and, on the other hand, what he is actually able to report to be true about these places.  As he said right at the start, what he is trying to do is to amass facts that are simply impossible to argue against.  This is what successful countries do.  This is what failed countries do.  And so on.

For instance, he has discovered the incontrovertible fact that the mere level of taxation simply is not as important as we libertarians would have the world believe.  (By the way, Leon Louw is an unswerving and utterly uncompromising libertarian and he said it very plainly in our talk.) What matters, it turns out, is how a government behaves, and how it spends its money.  If it behaves in a predictable, rule-bound manner, that’s good.  The “rule of law” is good, very good.  If it behaves in an arbitrary, discretionary manner, even if the scale of its operations is a lot smaller, that’s bad.

And the central point here is, if you disagree with this “opinion”, then Leon has a simple response to you.  This is not an opinion; it is a fact.  And you are ignorant of it.  “We are all entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts.”

This publication, he says, is “an orgy of statistics”.  Statistics like these ones, and I had the luck to ask about this, have become a lot easier to gather in the age of the internet, which alone might turn out to justify the internet, historically speaking.  Simply, the internet makes it much easier to compare countries, and to see which ones are best, which worst, and why.

This work was first asked of Leon Louw by the Government of South Africa, but it is of universal significance, of value and of interest to people in all countries everywhere.  One can imagine as many different versions of this publication as there are countries on the planet, bringing the same body of facts to bear on whatever are the local questions, assumptions and concerns, anywhere and everywhere.

As for other variables which you might expect to have a major bearing on national success or failure, Leon has knocked over theory after theory, like so many bowling pins.  Neither resource abundance nor resource scarcity make much difference, resources being neither an automatic curse nor an automatic blessing.  Size doesn’t matter, nor geography, not history.  Race doesn’t matter.  (One of the countries that has in recent times being doing among the best of all is Botswana.) Nor does political freedom seem to matter.  China is not politically free and is doing well.  India has long been a democracy, but only recently started doing well.  Something has changed, but democracy wasn’t it.

None of which means that Leon Louw cares nothing for low taxes and/or democracy and political emancipation.  It is simply that if you believe in such things, you are now going to have to argue for them for their own sake, rather than for what you wrongly suppose them to lead to.

The other big thing that Leon is able to report is that economic growth is wholly good, by any standard you care to judge it by.  All the social indicators get better when growth is in full swing.  Poverty, environmental damage, life expectancy, happiness, you name it.  All the numbers get better.

I could ramble on indefinitely about how enthusiastic I am about this man, and about this growing body of work – for, by the way, it is anything but finished.  But, instead I will just say, read the whole thing, and listen to the whole thing.  Don’t take my word for any of this, read Leon Louw’s words and listen to Leon Louw’s words.  The interview I did with him lasted fifty minutes, and it is worth every minute of your time.  You don’t have fifty minutes to spare, learning about what successful and effective government is like?  Find it.  Make it.  I honestly don’t see how any humane or intelligent person could regret doing this.

I was so excited about all this that I clean forgot to take a picture of Leon, even though I had two digital cameras with me.  The picture above is one I found on the internet.  Ah well, next time.  And I very much hope there is a next time, because I can’t wait to hear what else this man finds out about how to make the world a better place.

Brian, I listened to the interview last night and very good it was. Leon is a smashing guy, a very fine advertisement for libertarianism indeed precisely because you never get the impression that he is trying to convert you. Rather, he talks about the subjects in hand in a conversational manner.

I don’t quite agree with the notion that there is no correlation between economic dynamism and liberty. It seems to me that the evidence on tax rates, as provided by the likes of CATO, suggests there is a link. Even so, Leon is right to argue against intellectual laziness on this score.

Posted by Johnathan Pearce on 01 December 2006

Thanks for this link Brian, that is a fascinating paper. Not only for the general message that it so clearly sets out - it’s also interesting and refreshing to see somebody apparently very bright and well-informed not writing Africa off as a hopeless case. May he be right!

Posted by Alan Little on 01 December 2006

A very interesting listen. Thanks Brian, and Leon.

Posted by Mark Holland on 03 December 2006

God, this is good (and I am only half way through).  I know it’s a bit late in the day but better late than never.  Even if it does put the kybosh on one of my favourite InstaPatrick pages.

Not that I am bothered.  It’s actually quite nice to have your opinion changed once in a while.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on 20 December 2006

Looking through the report, the factors summary table on page 34 contains a potential bombshell.

“Race: Is a factor - Too sensitive to address.”

Maybe Leon should clarify a bit more? After all, in the interests of scholarly research, no stone should be left unturned. If race is indeed a factor, then it should be elaborated upon.

Posted by The Wobbly Guy on 15 February 2007
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