There are many threats to prosperity, both in the short run and long run.
- A tit-for-tat global trade war that would repeat the mistakes of the 1930s.
- Punitive class-warfare taxes stifling investment and entrepreneurship.
- Financial bubbles fueled by the easy-money policies of central banks.
Those are all things we should worry about. But here’s the issue that worries me the most.
- More government spending resulting from demographic change and entitlements.
Fortunately, there’s a solution. Governments should copy Switzerland and impose a spending cap. I explained this system in a column for the Wall Street Journal back in 2012.
…85% of its voters approved an initiative that effectively requires its central government spending to grow no faster than trendline revenue. The reform, called a “debt brake” in Switzerland, has been very successful. Before the law went into effect in 2003, government spending was expanding by an average of 4.3% per year. Since then it’s increased by only 2.6% annually. …politicians aren’t able to boost spending when the economy is doing well and the Treasury is flush with cash. Equally important, it is very difficult for politicians to increase the spending cap by raising taxes.
By the way, I just updated the calculations using IMF data. Looking at the numbers from 2003-2018, government spending has grown by an average of 2.1 percent per year since the debt brake went into effect.
In other words, the policy is becoming more successful over time.
Some argue, by the way, that spending restraint is bad for an economy. The Keynesians think that more government is “stimulus.” And many of the international bureaucracies (including the IMF) argue that more government is an “investment.”
There’s lots of evidence that smaller government is the right route for prosperity. But for today’s purposes, let’s focus just on the United States and Switzerland.
Both nations are prosperous by world standards, though the United States generally enjoyed a small advantage in terms of per-capita economic output according to the Maddison database. But in the past 15 years, Switzerland has jumped ahead.
Time for a big caveat. There are dozens of policies that help determine a nation’s prosperity, so it would be improper to claim that Switzerland overtook the United States solely because of the spending cap.
Switzerland ranks above the United States in Economic Freedom of the World, so many factors doubtlessly contributed to the nation’s superior performance. Both theory and evidence, however, suggest that fiscal discipline is good for prosperity.
But what about government debt? Did the spending cap in the debt brake succeed in controlling red ink?
The answer is yes, an emphatic yes.
Here are two charts, based on data from the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database for the years since the debt brake went into effect. We can see that both gross debt and net debt increased in advanced countries and euro countries. In Switzerland, however, debt levels fell.
In other words, while debt levels have jumped in other industrialized nations, the level of red ink in Switzerland has declined. While other European nations have experienced fiscal crisis and ever-increasing amounts of debt, Switzerland has been an island of budgetary tranquility.
By the way, I can’t resist pointing out that Switzerland relies on spending restraint, and red ink fell. Other nations have adopted lots of tax increases, and red ink rose.
Hmmm…, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned?