Saturday, November 13, 2010

How important is the 'size of government' component of economic freedom indexes?

A few months ago a guest blogger on ‘The Baseline Scenario’ blog, StatsGuy, wrote a post entitled ‘Good Government Versus Less Government’. It was described as a ‘must-read’ in a post by Tyler Cowen on ‘Marginal Revolution’ and received a great deal of attention on a range of other blogs including Scott Sumner’s (here).

StatsGuy draws attention to the fact that the size of government component of the Heritage Foundation index of economic freedom is negatively correlated with the other components of this index. He concludes that the Heritage Freedom index is really a composite of measures that get at two different things: good government, and less government. His bottom line:
Overall, the Good Government factors tend to dominate, and drive a lot of the correlation with good economic and quality of life outcomes. When one splits out the factors, the case for Less/Weaker Government weakens substantially, and the case for Clean/Non-Corrupt/Efficient government strengthens considerably’.

Some other researchers have similarly objected to the inclusion of size of government in economic freedom indexes. For example, Peter Lindert describes this as ‘guilt by definition’ on the grounds that it tends to make big government and the welfare state look bad merely by describing this national attribute as contributing to lower economic freedom (‘Welfare states, markets and efficiency: the free lunch puzzle continues’, 2007: 6).

At least one contributor to the discussion of StatsGuy’s post made the point that if economic freedom has two different dimensions, a lack of correlation between those dimensions does not necessarily mean that one of them is irrelevant. For example, it is possible for both size of government and quality of government to be important to economic growth.

I recently had an opportunity to test whether this is so in preparing a background paper for the 2025 Taskforce, which was established by the New Zealand government to advise how average incomes in that country could be raised to equate those in Australia by 2025. The analysis provides some support for the view that size of government is an important component of economic freedom indexes.

The analysis uses the Fraser Institute’s index of economic freedom because this provides a consistent measure of institutional quality over a longer time period than the alternatives. The data set relates to ‘advanced economies’ as defined by the IMF – this data set includes high income jurisdictions with small governments, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as OECD countries. The regression, based on panel data, explains average per capita GDP growth in each decade in terms of several variables including two components of economic freedom at the beginning of each decade, the size of government index and ‘other economic freedom’. The relevant regression results are presented in Table A 2.3, p 43 (the right hand column).

The coefficients on both the size of government and ‘other’ economic freedom variables were significantly greater than zero - suggesting that smaller size of government has a positive effect on economic growth. The magnitude of the estimated coefficient on size of government is about half that on ‘other’ economic freedom, but that is about twice as large as I had expected it to be on the basis of the weight of size of government in the economic freedom index (20%).

One fairly obvious question that might be asked is that if size of government is so important, how is it that some countries with big governments, an obvious example is Sweden, have managed to maintain relatively strong economic performance. I have attempted to answer this question in the chart below which compares per capita incomes in Sweden and Australia (Penn World Tables, rgdpch with some extrapolation using IMF growth estimates). The results of the simple analysis presented in the chart suggest that if Sweden had not undertaken substantial economic reforms (including some improvement in the size of government component of economic freedom as well as other components) it would have performed poorly. The chart also suggests that Sweden’s economic growth performance could have been much better if it had a smaller government.

This analysis doesn’t tell us that every country could become a paradise if only it had a small government, or that countries with big governments are dreadful places to live. It just suggests that big government is not a free lunch . The lack of correlation between the size of government and other aspects of economic freedom is interesting, but it doesn’t mean that size of government doesn’t matter.

A colleague has suggested that I should have mentioned that the size of government of most of the countries included in this ‘advanced’ country data base used in the regression analysis reported above is now much larger than it was prior to the 1960s.
It might also be worth noting that recent World Bank research suggests that in low income countries government spending on infrastructure, education etc. can have a positive effect on economic growth if (a big if) the countries concerned have favourable institutional characteristics.

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