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.
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. Those who headed up government agencies were now chosen on the basis of a worldwide search and received term contracts – five years with a possible extension of another three years. The only ground for their removal was non-performance, so a newly-elected government couldn’t simply throw them out as had happened with civil servants under the old system. And of course, with those kinds of incentives, agency heads – like CEOs in the private sector – made certain that the next tier of people had very clear objectives that they were expected to achieve as well.
We achieved an overall reduction of 66 percent in the size of government, measured by the number of employees. The government-s share of GDP dropped from 44 to 27 percent. We were now running surpluses, and we established a policy never to leave dollars on the table: We knew that if we didn’t get rid of this money, some clown would spend it. So we used most of the surplus to pay off debt, and debt went from 63 percent down to 17 percent of GDP. We used the remainder of the surplus each year for tax relief. We reduced income tax rates by half and eliminated incidental taxes. As a result of these policies, revenue increased by 20 percent. Yes, Ronald Reagan was right: lower tax rates do produce more revenue.
New Zealand had an education system that was failing as well. It was failing about 30 percent of its children – especially those in lower socio-economic areas. We had put more and more money into education for 20 years, and achieved worse and worse results.
It cost us twice as much to get a poorer result than we did 20 years previously with much less money. So we decided to rethink what we were doing here as well. The first thing we did was to identify where the dollars were going that we were pouring into education. We hired international consultants (because we didn’t trust our own departments to do it), and they reported that for every dollar we were spending on education, 70 cents was being swallowed up by administration. Once we heard this, we immediately eliminated all of the Boards of Education in the country. Every single school came under the control of a board of trustees elected by the parents of the children at that school, and by nobody else. We gave schools a block of money based on the number of students that went to them, with no strings attached. At the same time, we told the parents that they had an absolute right to choose where their children would go to school. It is absolutely obnoxious to me that anybody would tell parents that they must send their children to a bad school. We converted 4,500 schools to this new system all on the same day.
But we went even further: We made it possible for privately owned schools to be funded in exactly the same way as publicly owned schools, giving parents the ability to spend their education dollars wherever they chose. Again, everybody predicted that there would be a major exodus of students from the public to the private schools, because the private schools showed an academic advantage of 14 to 15 percent. It didn’t happen, however, because the differential between schools disappeared in about 18-24 months. Why? Because all of a sudden teachers realized that if they lost their students, they would lose their funding; and if they lost their funding, they would lose their jobs. Eighty-five percent of our students went to public schools at the beginning of this process. That fell to only about 84 percent over the first year or so of our reforms. But three years later, 87 percent of the students were going to public schools. More importantly, we moved from being about 14 or 15 percent below our international peers to being about 14 or 15 percent above our international peers in terms of educational attainment.
When we in New Zealand looked at our revenue gathering process, we found the system extremely complicated in a way that distorted business as well as private decisions. So we asked ourselves some questions: Was our tax system concerned with collecting revenue? Was it concerned with collecting revenue and also delivering social services? Or was it concerned with collecting revenue, delivering social services and changing behavior, all three? We decided that the social services and behavioral components didn’t have any place in a rational system of taxation.
Reprinted by permission from IMPRIMIS, the monthly journal of Hillsdale College (www.hillsdale.edu).
READ THE WHOLE THING.
How the hell did they manage to pull that off? Hey, Kiwi Pundit! Is this guy blowing smoke? It sounds too good to be true!
UPDATE 5/1: It IS too good to be true. I emailed Nigel of Kiwi Pundit. Here’s his response:
The article is mostly correct as far as it goes, there were periods of free-market reform from 1984-88 and 1991-3. It was driven by two different Finance Ministers who had some support, but were eventually reined by their party leadership. We’ve regressed slowly but steadily since 1994.
The other point to note is that the situation in 1984 was truly atrocious, even centre-left governments of today advocate far less state intervention in the economy. The third paragraph talks about the state of NZ in 1984 so the word ‘reform’ is relative to that situation.
The claim to have eliminated employees in government departments is misleading because, in the areas mentioned, they created private monopoly companies owned by the state instead of government departments. Some of these companies were later sold, but either way, they regulated the hell out of them.
The education reforms have been almost completely rolled back by the current Labour government. Private schools have always been eligible for state funding, but the strings attached are now pulled tighter than ever. The best schools are the ones that refuse state funding completely, but obviously few people can afford them.
We also have higher taxes than ever now, around 40% of GDP, although the top tax rate is ‘only’ 39%, it was 66% in 1984.
New Zealand is no libertarian paradise, if that’s what you’re thinking.
Damn. I KNEW the damned
statist mutherfuckers politicians couldn’t let a good thing go. Individual freedom, low taxes, and limited government offends their sense of “rightness,” regardless of results.
ANOTHER case of cognitive dissonance.