Just How Free Is the World’s Freest Economy?
Democracy may pose the greatest danger to Hong Kong's free-market economy.


Hong Kong has the freest economy in the whole world, according to both the Index of Economic Freedom published by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, and the Economic Freedom of the World report published by the Fraser Institute and the Cato Institute.

There are good reasons for this ranking. The highest tax rate on personal income in the country is only 16 percent, and there are no taxes on interest, dividends, or capital gains.
Hong Kong has complete free trade. There is very little special-interest (mercantilistic) interference in most markets. Hong Kong is one of the least corrupt countries in the world. And its legal system is based on British common law.

These undoubtedly are the reasons why this tiny land of 7 million people, with no natural resources to speak of, has a per-capita income ($29,900) that rivals that of the United States. Hong Kong enjoyed meteoric economic success in the space of a few decades — and did so mainly under British rule. Ironically, while the mother country was stifled by socialism and the welfare state (before Margaret Thatcher, at any rate), the colony soared from Third World to First World status by adopting capitalism instead. By the time Hong Kong was turned over to China, its per-capita income exceeded that of Britain.

But just how free is
Hong Kong? On a recent visit, I spent an entire week with people in and out of government, and what I learned was surprising and disturbing.

Shocking fact number one: One out of every two residents of
Hong Kong lives in government housing. Shocking fact number two: Under Hong Kong’s system of socialized medicine, everyone is entitled to (nearly) free health care (there are only nominal charges, and even those are waived if your income is low). In a sense, Hong Kong is even more socialistic than the Chinese mainland when it comes to housing and health care.

Of course, when things are free, demand exceeds supply. So there is a waiting list for public housing, and the average wait to see a medical specialist is more than seven months. That is why almost one out of every two health-care dollars is spent privately — with people paying market prices to obtain promptly what they are supposed to be getting gratis.

It gets worse. In a country that is often held up as the quintessential alternative to the modern welfare state, it turns out that people can and do apply for . . . well . . . welfare. Shocking fact number three: One out of every seven
Hong Kong residents is receiving cash payments from the government, and more than 40 percent of these people are neither old nor disabled.

To begin with, there is a basic cash benefit. Then there is a whole slew of child-related cash allowances, covering such items as day care, pre-school, kindergarten, textbooks, and school lunches. Add to that a transportation allowance, a utilities allowance, and even a burial allowance, and you get a whole new meaning of the idea of “cradle to grave.”

There are no lifetime limits to these benefits, but they are reduced if you earn any income. Start with an average $12,000 annual cash benefit. If the family earns $8,000, the benefit is reduced to $4,000. If the family earns $9,000, the benefit is only $3,000. In economic terms, these families face a 100 percent  marginal tax rate on private-sector earnings. One wonders why anyone works at all in
Hong Kong. The answer seems to be: There is a strong work ethic that overrides the lure of living off the state.

Shocking fact number four: There is no private property in
Hong Kong — at least not real property. All land is owned by the government. Nominal owners are actually leaseholders who have merely acquired the right to use the property they have.

Ah, I know what you’re thinking. At least
Hong Kong isn’t infected by political correctness and nanny-state lunacies. Think again. There are laws against age, sex, and race discrimination. Smoking in restaurants and office buildings is illegal. And (would you believe it?) Hong Kong has an indigenous population for whom some people feel a lot of guilt. Thus any male (females don’t count — an indigenous people’s exception to the no-sex-discrimination rule) who can prove he is a lineal descendant of a male who was living in the region in 1898 is entitled to a free plot of land on which to build a “small house.” Since land is so scarce, its value is worth many times the construction costs of a house — allowing many an 18-year-old to enter into a flip arrangement with a real-estate investor and become an overnight millionaire.

I don’t want to be too negative here. I would rank
Hong Kong among the best places to live in the whole world. It is a city of glass and steel that is visually stunning. Schoolchildren wear uniforms. The people are unfailingly friendly. And although there are no obese people to speak of, it has some of the best restaurants in all of Asia.