Bermuda could learn from Cowperthwaite
Thank you for performing a notable public service in publishing my Letter to the Editor on March 25, 2019. There is an undercurrent of Bermudians who hesitate to refute what passes for popular opinion and it is fitting that their voices are heard.
Some years ago, I lived in Hong Kong at the time the redoubtable Sir John Cowperthwaite was financial secretary and laid the foundations for very rapid growth and widespread prosperity by apparently doing very little. His innings and achievements were so marked and so wondrous that we need to listen to his own voice.
Here, in his first budget speech, he nailed his colours to the mast with the words: “In the long run, the aggregate of decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment, in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is less likely to do harm than the centralised decisions of government, and certainly harm is likely to be counteracted faster”.
Cowperthwaite himself called his approach “positive non-interference”. Personal taxes were kept at a maximum of 15 per cent, government borrowing was wholly unacceptable, there were no tariffs or subsidies, and red tape was so reduced that a new company could be registered with a one-page form.
Characteristically modest, he summed up his ten-year part in the colony’s success: “I did very little. All I did was to try to prevent some of the things that might undo prosperity.”
His bêtes noires included the provision of economic statistics, which would only “be used as ammunition by those who wanted more government intervention”. With his own razor-sharp intellect, he was not afraid to highlight the shortcomings of others. When Milton Friedman asked him to explain the mechanism by which the Hong Kong dollar was pegged to the pound sterling, Cowperthwaite remarked that the management of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, by whom the peg was operated, did not understand it — “Better they shouldn’t. They would mess it up”.
How more fortunate we are to have an efficient, but unsung, “peg operator” within the Bermuda Monetary Authority.
Sir John was known as a “Master of Simplicities”, and would not dream of taking any “perk” or benefit from his office, as he depended solely on his official salary. When one surveys Bermuda’s overly bloated Civil Service functionaries, whose chief characteristics are resistance to change, and the suppression of new ideas, who can deny that our citizenry have been borne darkly, fearfully, afar from eternal verities?
Let me conclude with a quotation from the admirable Edmund Burke: “The march of the human mind is slow”.
He never implied that the people, the voters, would not get there in the end — the evidence is that this is already happening.
MICHAEL D.K. TURNER
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