Poverty and Wealth: India versus Hong Kong

By Skousen, Mark | Ideas on Liberty, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Poverty and Wealth: India versus Hong Kong


Skousen, Mark, Ideas on Liberty


A.E.I.O.U.

From The President"Vs Desk

"The government of India regulates nearly everything, so there's very little progress; whereas in Hong Kong the government keeps its hands off ... and the standard of living has multiplied."

-JOHN TEMPLETON1

The mutual fund magnate John Templeton traveled around the world during the 1930s, noting in particular the extreme poverty in two Asian nations under British control, India and Hong Kong. Forty years later, in the 1970s, Templeton returned. Once again he witnessed the incredible poverty in India. But Hong Kong had changed tremendously. "The standard of living in Hong Kong had multiplied more than tenfold in forty years, while the standard of living in Calcutta has improved hardly at all."2

Today neither country is under British rule, but the contrast is even more clear. Hong Kong enjoys the greatest concentration of wealth in the world. India suffers the greatest concentration of poverty in the world.3

Twenty years ago, development economist P.T. Bauer wrote a famous little essay in which he pondered, "How would you rate the economic prospects of an Asian country which has very little land (and only eroded hillsides at that), and which is indeed the most densely populated country in the world; whose population has grown rapidly, both through natural increase and large-scale immigration; which imports all of its oil and raw materials, and even most of its water; whose government is not engaged in development planning and operates no exchange. controls or restrictions on capital exports and imports; and which is the only remaining Western colony of any significance?"4

Indeed, the prospects for Hong Kong were dismal. Yet by making cheap products for export to the faraway West, it managed to become the powerhouse of Southeast Asia. Today its citizens' incomes rival the Japanese, despite its teeming seven million people crowded into 400 square miles. What broke the vicious cycle of poverty? According to Bauer, Hong Kong's economic miracle did not depend on having money, natural resources, foreign aid, or even formal education, but rather on the "industry, enterprise, thrift and ability . . . of highly motivated people."5 Hong Kong's "overpopulation" turned out to be an asset, not a liability.

Equally important, Britain did not interfere in private decision-making. It adopted a laissez-faire economic policy, except in the area of subsidized housing and education. Communist China has pursued a largely noninterventionist approach since it took over in 1997. Hong Kong continues to flourish with a stable currency, free port, and low taxes. Its maximum income tax rate is 18 percent, and it imposes no capital-gains tax. In its economic freedom index, the Fraser Institute has always ranked Hong Kong number one in the world.6

Tragic India

India is an entirely different story. Its population of one billion remains relatively poor. Unlike Hong Kong, India has valuable natural resources-forests, fish, oil, iron ore, coal, and agricultural products, among others. It has achieved self-sufficiency in food since independence in 1947, yet deep poverty persists.

Many pundits blame India's anti-capitalist culture, its fatalistic caste system, its overpopulation problem, and its hot and humid climate (it reached 117 degrees when we visited the Taj Mahal last June). But Milton Friedman identified the real culprit when he wrote, "The correct explanation is . …

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