Competitiveness: Let Markets Lead the Way

October 3, 2011

The American Enterprise Institute’s Kevin Hassett held a conference the other day on the idea of international “competitiveness.” He invited me to comment on his new co-authored paper that tries to nail down the murky meaning of the word.

The paper suggests that for a solid definition of “competitiveness,” we should look to the literature on Tiebout competition, which is competition between local jurisdictions for inflows of labor and capital.

Kevin and co-authors suggest that as global labor and capital mobility have increased, countries are now competing with each other the same way that local jurisdictions do. In Global Tax Revolution, Dan Mitchell and I discuss why Tiebout competition is a positive force promoting fiscal reforms worldwide. This is competitiveness in a good way.

By contrast, Paul Krugman wrote an excellent article in 1994 criticizing the vacuous way that “competitiveness” was thrown around by pundits such as Robert Reich and Lester Thurow. Books by such authors suggest that the global economy is a giant wrestling match, and that other countries will slam Team America to the mat unless we have more government planning and subsidies.

At the AEI forum, I noted that America does have to adapt to the realities of globalization, but most of that adaptation can and should occur in the private sector. For example, America needs larger and more efficient seaports to handle rising volumes of international trade. But rather than shoveling more taxpayer money into our government seaports, we should privatize them so that they can expand in response to rising market demands.

The World Economic Forum publishes a well-known index of country competitiveness. Kevin and coauthors think the index is dubious, but the WEF report is packed with interesting data. One WEF indicator of competitiveness (page 391) is “quality of seaports.” Hong Kong is ranked #1, and its seaport is privately financed, owned, and operated. American seaports are ranked #22, and they are generally government-owned.

The upshot is that when thinking about America’s “competitiveness”—however it is defined—we should think about the proper roles of the public and private sectors. The public sector can pursue tax reform to make us more of a magnet for capital and skilled labor. But when it comes to such things as infrastructure, education, and investing in “industries of the future,” the government should get out of the way and let entrepreneurs and markets drive America’s prosperity in the global economy.

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