It isn’t every day you hear the suggestion that British imperialism has ‘done more to alleviate poverty than all the world’s aid programmes in the last century’, and to hear such praise from the lips of an American is rarer still. All the more so when the American in question is an eminent economist called Paul Romer and is speaking at the TED Global event in Oxford (see www.TED.com), where earlier in the week Gordon Brown had received a standing ovation.
Yet I am immensely proud to say I was there in person to witness Romer’s speech — in fact I even tracked him down the following day to say how compelling I had found his argument (though, at an event attended by Cameron Diaz and Meg Ryan, the fact that I spent my coffee break stalking a Stanford University economist suggests my Asperger’s has got out of check again).
The good professor wasn’t there simply to praise British imperialism, I should add, and his kind words for our efforts mostly extended to Hong Kong and Singapore, in particular the former’s beneficial effect on China. Romer has the conviction — what TED calls an ‘Idea Worth Spreading’ — that the best way to improve the lot of the developing world would be to create many more Hong Kongs: city-states which operate on different economic models and under different rules to the large countries they border. So his mischievous suggestion for enriching Cuba, for instance, is for the United States to hand over Guantanamo Bay not to the Cubans but to Canada, so creating a kind of micro-Canada where Cubans might enjoy free markets, internet access and Mr Horton’s doughnuts (and where Canadians would finally get to watch decent baseball).
Not everyone at TED agreed. The more tree-hugging element didn’t like the idea of creating more cities as it presumably conflicted with their vision of a future spent living in hessian sacks. But I loved it. It reminded me of that time during the Falklands war when leftists asked, ‘How would you feel if the Isle of Wight was run by Argentina?’, and the rest of us were thinking that if one could enjoy a 50p steak and tango dancing on Ryde Pier we’d finally have a reason to go there. The establishment of ‘bridgehead’ city-states could do wonders for variety and choice; someone could even establish a small capitalist exclave in Scotland.
It’s fair to point out (which, in our conversation, Professor Romer did) that the conditions established in Hong Kong and Singapore may not be easy to reproduce. Both arose in that wonderful period where the world was more likely to be run by classical scholars than accountants. Anyone today trapped in the target-riddled bureaucracies of the BBC, the civil service, the NHS or any plc can only dream of rule by Hong Kong’s Sir John Cowperthwaite, who ‘refused to allow the collection of economic statistics for fear it would encourage officials to meddle in the economy’. His policy of positive non-interventionism was similar to that of the pre-war comedian (Max Miller? Tommy Trinder?) who, when standing on the terraces at football matches, yelled at players to ‘use your own judgment’.
I urge you to watch Paul Romer’s talk in full. And to spread the idea widely. It’s at http://snipurl.com/romer
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.