Friday, 3 February 2006

A bureaucrat who was a hero - yes, it's true!

You'll have hear me say occasionally that the world will be a better place when the last politician is strangled with the guts of the last bureaucrat, which is of course indisputably true. However, today you're going to see a eulogy here for a very special dead bureaucrat. Tim Worstall at TechCentralStation explains just how special was Sir John Cowperthwaite (right), the man who was Hong Kong's Nightwatchman:
It's unusual for a bureaucrat to be praised by Milton Friedman. It's even more unusual for one to be mentioned by PJ O'Rourke without being verbally pummeled and insulted. Yet one man who died last week managed both, even to the point of actually being praised by the Peej and Uncle Miltie alike.

Sir John Cowperthwaite... was the one who managed this unlikely double feat. He was sent out from London just after WWII to take over part of the administration of Hong Kong and would usually have been expected to implement the same sorts of programs that were going on back home.... Upon arrival, however," said a Far Eastern Economic Review article about Cowperthwaite, "he found it recovering quite nicely without him."

Our hero then decided to violate the most basic rule of all bureaucracies and governmental types. If people were doing OK on their own then he'd let them carry on doing so rather than making things worse by interfering... As O'Rourke put it:

"Quite a bit of government effort is required to create a system in which government leaves people alone. Hong Kong's colonial administration provided courts, contract enforcement, laws that applied to everyone, some measure of national defense…, an effective police force (Hong Kong's crime rate is lower than Tokyo's), and bureaucracy that was efficient and uncorrupt but not so hideously uncorrupt that it would not turn a blind eye on an occasional palm-greasing illegal refugee or unlicensed street vendor."

Read the full TCS eulogy for Cowperthwaite here, and the comprehensive Daily Telegraph obituary here.

Links: Hong Kong's Nightwatchman - TechCentralStation
Sir John Cowperthwaite
- Daily Telegraph


Brian S said...

Yes, it does take a special kind of bureaucrat to realize that leaving things alone is best. Hong Kong is a fascinating example of the power of laissez faire. What many people have not heard about is that up until 1993 a tiny area of Hong Kong called the Kowloon Walled City remained outside of all legislative control and became an incredible example of anarcho-capitalism at work. Pity there are no time lapse photos showing how it evolved - those buildings were in a constant state of metamorphis.

Anonymous said...


It's Gman here, I've had a hilarious comment from a subjectivist on my blog (Gman's rules) can you sort him out?