Aggregates and Averages, Individuality and Interventionists

By Stephen Mauzy

John Cowperthwaite, financial secretary of Hong Kong from 1961 to 1971, was the rare bureaucrat: a free-market noninterventionist inured against the hubris of grand economic scheming.

Cowperthwaite ventured into Hong Kong in 1941, joining the colonial administrative service after studying economics at Cambridge. Returning to Hong Kong, in 1945, Cowperthwaite was directed to determine ways the British government could boost Hong Kong's postwar economy.

A man blessed with exceptional instincts, Cowperthwaite determined that the best strategy to keep Hong Kong recovery's moving forward was to enervate the interventionists by disarming their most important weapon. When asked to name the one reform that swelled his pride most, Cowperthwaite replied, "I abolished the collection of statistics."

Cowperthwaite knew that statistics provided the raw input for interventionist mischief. He also knew that an organic, messy, free wealth-producing economy is too confounding and too replete with innumerable combinations of human action to be improved by mere mortals.

Rare is the bureaucrat and other overhead who will acknowledge such an obvious limitation. Cowperthwaite could; most can't.

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