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John James Cowperthwaite (1915 – 2006)


British civil servant and the Financial Secretary of Hong Kong from 1961 to 1971.
John James Cowperthwaite
My own views on all matters of public revenue and public expenditure are conditioned by an acute appreciation of whose is the sacrifice that produces public revenue and to whom accrues the benefit of public spending.
Cowperthwaite quotes
I will not be proposing a course which has been under some public discussion recently — deficit financing. It is wholly inappropriate to our economic situation. In its least extreme form it is based on the theory that additional money generated by a Government deficit (and given currency, as necessary, by use of the printing press) will stimulate consumption and thereby production, in time to match the excess money with goods before real inflationary harm is done. Unfortunately we don't, and can't, produce more than a small fraction of what we consume, and increased consumption would merely mean increased imports without matching exports; and a severe balance of payment crisis, which would destroy Hong Kong's credit and confidence in the Hong Kong dollar; and which we could not cure without coming close to ruining ourselves. Keynes was not writing with our situation in mind. In this hard world we have to earn before we spend.
Cowperthwaite
I find odd the view that a Government institution is better placed to evaluate "the technical and financial viability" of a project than a commercial bank. It may well be that our banks are deficient in the kind of expertize required for assessing projects but then what we should be doing is encouraging banks to acquire such expertize or to make use of outside, commercial, expertize. I do not believe in any case that a Government machine can provide a reliable judgement on such matters, an opinion the banking members of the committee appear to have shared, for they have prudently refused to commit themselves to accepting its advice. I myself tend to mistrust the judgement of anyone not involved in the actual process of risktaking.




One of these is an increasing awareness of the benefits to our economy, particularly in terms of investment and enterprise, both local and from overseas, of not having the inquisitorial type of tax system inevitably associated with a full income tax. Another is that even I, who have always believed in the vigour of our economy under our present tax regime, have been surprised by the growth of revenue generated at our present tax rates.
Cowperthwaite John James
I am confident, however old-fashioned this may sound, that funds left in the hands of the public will come into the Exchequer with interest at the time in the future when we need them.
Economists of the modern school will no doubt protest that I have said nothing of the use of budget deficits or surpluses for the control of the economy in general. I doubt if such techniques would ever be appropriate in Hong Kong's exposed economic position; and I think they are certainly not appropriate at present, when in strict orthodoxy they would suggest the need to plan for a very substantial surplus "to take the heat out of the economy". Although we have in fact run substantial surpluses in recent years we have not done so with deflationary effect because we have not removed them from the economy but have left them inside the Colony's banking system to continue to work for the economy. $500 million or 55% of reserves are so held at present.
John James Cowperthwaite
If people want consultative government, the price is increased complexity and delay in arriving at decisions. If they want speed of government, then they must accept a greater degree of authoritarianism. I suspect that the real answer is that most people prefer the latter so long, that is, as government’s decisions conform with their own views.
I still believe that, in the long run, the aggregate of the decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is likely to do less harm than the centralized decisions of a Government; and certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster. As I said earlier in this debate, our economic medicine may be painful but it is fast and powerful because it can act freely.
Cowperthwaite
I myself have no doubt in the past tended to appear to many to be more concerned with the creation of wealth than with its distribution. I must confess that there is a degree of truth in this, but to the extent that it is true, it has been because of my conviction that the rapid growth of the economy, and the pressure that comes with it on demand for labour, both produces a rapid and substantial redistribution of income directly of itself and also makes it possible to assist more generously those who are not, from misfortune temporary or permanent, sharing in the general advance. The history of our last fifteen years or so demonstrates this conclusively.
Cowperthwaite John James
I was particularly struck in this context by my honourable Friend, Mr K. S. Lo's concern at the decline in the enamelware industry as an example of the effect of lost advantages, as if this decline were a loss rather than a gain to the community. It has declined, I believe, because we have learned to use our resources of enterprise, capital and labour in other more profitable directions. That is progress. We would be in a sorry way if enamelware was still our fourth biggest industry.
John James Cowperthwaite
You always had the feeling that Cowperthwaite was looking over your left shoulder. You knew that he would ask at least five questions about any proposal that was submitted.




I am also, I must confess, a little sceptical of the theory that we have a right, if we could, to pass on our capital burden to future generations. I remarked last year in this context that our predecessors had not passed any significant part of their burden on to us.
John James Cowperthwaite
I am afraid that I do not believe that any body of men can have enough knowledge of the past, the present and the future to establish “development priorities” — which presumably means procuring some developments as being good and prohibiting others as being bad.
Cowperthwaite quotes
A glimmer of light is better than no illumination at all.
Cowperthwaite John James
I would suggest to my honourable Friend that the foreign investor is at least as discouraged by high national debt for that, as all example shows, is the surest precursor of high taxation.
Money cannot be converted into houses or trained teachers or hospitals at the touch of a magic wand. There are limitations to our physical and intellectual resources.
John James Cowperthwaite
It seems to me that we have three choices; first, public services of high standard and cost but of limited scope, leaving unfilled a substantial part of the present gap, not necessarily benefiting those in real need and benefiting many who are not in need at all (this has been our historical approach); second, public services to meet the requirements of all, with the beneficiaries making a contribution by way of fee according to their means, and with adequate provision for complete remission in suitable cases; or third, universal public services provided for rich and poor alike on terms the poorest can afford; that is, the welfare state where all benefit and the whole cost is met by the taxpayer in general. I think it is well-known that I am an advocate of the second approach.
I must confess my distaste for any proposal to use public funds for the support of selected, and thereby, privileged, industrialists, the more particularly if this is to be based on bureaucratic views of what is good and what is bad by way of industrial development, but I have been studying the report referred to with some interest.
John James Cowperthwaite
If one accepts that in general social services should be made available to all on the basis of ability to pay, one has the choice of two opposite principles of action, although they need not be mutually exclusive—either progressive taxation and free services or fees covering costs with remission for those who cannot afford them. The former method is appropriate, in my view, in rich developed countries where the principle of progressive taxation can be applied without unduly adverse economic or social results, and the wastes inherent in full and free services can be afforded. In less advanced or poorer countries, where neither economy nor society is geared to progressive taxation and waste cannot be tolerated, fees remittable in case of need seem to me clearly more appropriate.
Cowperthwaite John James
The fact that previous generations have handed down to us a substantial public heritage by way of roads, port, etc. almost completely free of debt, seems to me to impose some limitation on the validity of the theory that by borrowing we should, or could, pass on the burden of development to the next generation.


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