Exit and freedom
What stands out about Singapore and Hong Kong --and other entities that have the most economic freedom in their region, such as Bahrain in the Arab Middle East -- is that they specialize in international trade. To encourage business travel, they must put few restrictions and tax penalties on travel. Large proportions of their population have strong international social ties. Large proportions of the population of these countries could easily move out of the country if their local rights were violated. Strong international personal and business ties allow them to quickly reestablish themselves in a different, but not so foreign, country.
In other words, when a small country specializes in mediation of international trade, the exit costs for the people from whom it collects most of its tax revenue is low. To maintain their tax revenues they must maintain a productive international trade business, and to maintain international trade these governments must thus maintain low exit costs for a large proportion of their population.
Laffer curve of tax rate versus tax revenue (black) and corresponding curve of GDP (green). When governments maximize tax revenue the prosperity and economic freedom of their taxpayers suffer. Credit: Mark Byron.
Governments of almost any form try to maximize their tax revenues, and government employees also often gain personal satisfaction from being able to control the lives and property of others (this goes under various euphemisms, such as the ambitions to "change the world" and "make a difference.") This process is facilitated primarily by high exit costs and is limited almost only by limits on governmental ability to increase exit costs. The maximum point on theLaffer curve -- the most tax that a government can collect -- is lower and occurs at a lower percentage tax rate in countries where exit costs are low. Thus the tax rates inHong Kong, Singapore, and Bahrain are lower than among their culturally similar neighbors that do not specialize in as internationalimermediaries.
At the other end of the spectrum from Hong Kong and Singapore are countries with isolated populations, with poor access to world communications and travel. Add to this countries where tax revenues can be gained from taxing agricultural land or minerals rather than potentially mobile "human capital." These countries tend to have the fewest freedoms. Even among highly developed countries, those with more homogeneous populations that speak a tongue seldom spoken outside the country -- and thus far stronger internal than international social ties -- tend to tax their "human capital" the most, e.g. the Scandinavian countries.
In other words:
(1) the governments of Singapore and Hong Kong have to encourage free travel to and from many other countries, to encourage the constant human interchange that is essential to international trade, making it impractical to set up onerous travel restrictions,
(2) most residents of Singapore and Hong Kong have strong social ties -- both business and personal -- outside the country, and
(3) the vast majority of residents of almost all other countries are tied to their territories by strong internal social networks and the lack of external social networks that could support them if they needed to escape. That makes it easy for governments to tax, regulate, and control the residents, for the same reason that it's easy for prison guards to abuse inmates -- it's hard to escape.
The American colonies and the early American republic both had remarkably strong property rights and very low taxes by our standards, despite sharp changes in the form of government. With few changes in the form of government since, taxes have risen almost tenfold and property rights often now mean little more than the right to keep after-tax capital gains.
The answer to this American puzzle is again exit costs. Farmland was the dominant form of wealth in the 18th and early 19th century, and practically free yet very good farmland was available in America on the western frontier. Any oppression, any high taxes or other violations of property rights could be countered by pulling up stakes and moving west. If you didn't want your local farmers to leave you had to respect their rights, in sharp contrast to the traditional form of agriculture where serfs were stuck on the land. On the other hand, black slaves in the U.S. provide a sharp contrast to the remarkably free white farmers -- a condition explained by state and federal fugitive slave laws, which spread a virtual Iron Curtain for slaves across the entire vast expanse of the United States, in free states as well as slave states.
Human capital is very easy to tax when it gathers in large organizations, such as modern corporations, as these organizations must be audited, and auditing provides the information needed for the income tax, by far the most lucrative form of tax ever developed. When America's frontier disappeared, when the good agricultural land was claimed and industrial wealth became more important than agricultural wealth, and industrial wealth was flowed in easily audited forms through corporations and to their employees, taxes rose and property rights for all started to erode, a process that continues to this day.
Countries that depend on human capital, as almost every country these days does, often throw up legal barriers to exit. Countries that worry about "brain drain" sometimes charge extortionate passport fees. These are examples of countries erecting virtual Berlin walls in order to raise the exit costs of their countries, suppress jurisdictional competition, and thus increase their tax revenues. Another form of this are long-arm statutes, especially when used to collect taxes on companies that have only "minimal contacts" with a jurisdiction.
Why are governments imposed on us rather than chosen? Why can't we shop for countries like we shop for cars? Why has progress in jurisdiction shopping movements such as the Free State Project been so slow? Because interstate travel is considered a fundamental right under U.S. law, the exit costs imposed by law on moving from state to state are very low. The slow progress of the Free State Project points up several factors:
(1) that many, if not most, taxes and other violations of property rights considered onerous come from federal rather than local governments, and moving just from state to state within the United States does not avoid these,
(2) that no state, not even New Hampshire, is so remarkably better than any other state to motivate many people to move, and
(3) that local social ties -- whether for personal or business relationships -- are much more expensive for most people to break than the gains to be had from increased economic freedom between one state and another.
In the United States and today in most of the world, exit costs are imposed primarily by the ways we live our lives -- and in particular by our personal and business networks -- not by artificial Berlin wall like barriers. Modern deprivations of liberty have much more to do with this fact than with the oftenexaggerated differences in forms of government or with supposedly crucial rights such as the right to vote. Today, never in the United States have so many people had the right to vote, yet never in the United States have we had so high taxes and so few property rights.
With the fall of communism, for most people in the world government restrictions on exit are no longer the dominant barrier to exit. Our lack of liberty has rather to do with the fact that the vast majority of our strong social ties lie within a territory monopolized by a nation-state. Any form of large modern nation-state that we can practically expect to encounter, as well as any state of any size that restricts emigration, will engage in extortionate deprivations of property that many people in many earlier times and places, such as colonial America, did not tolerate.
How, then, can one best protect one's rights? By living one's life in a way that makes exit costs low:
Be prepared to vote with your feet. Add interstate and international diversity to your social networks -- both personal and business. Lower your costs of exiting, if the need should arise, the jurisdictions that impose on the territories wherein you reside. Repeatedly in history -- from the old American frontier to the fall of the Berlin Wall to modern jurisdictions that specialize in international trade -- low exit costs have not only enabled liberty for the individual and the small group, but they have more than any other factor motivated the larger jurisdiction to provide the most important rights and freedoms for those who stay put. Grow interpolitical roots so that no single polity can chop down your tree. The good news is that modern communications, travel, and standardization of international languages (mostly on English) have made diversifying our social networks -- growing international roots - far easier than ever before in history.Despite the closing of physical frontiers, which has had an extremely deleterious impact on freedom, other trends may be bringing about the lowering of exit costs. International communications networks and the international standardization on a few languages (and perhaps even just one, which quite fortunately for my readers is the one I'm currently writing in), combined with low international travel costs, are leading to the development of more strong personal and business social ties that cross borders. Multinational small businesses are joining multinational corporations in developing cross-border business ties.
But there are also many threats by governments to re-establish or increase exit costs by throwing up virtual Berlin walls and fugitive taxpayer networks. Extraterritorial assertions of jurisdiction, especially of tax jurisdiction, threaten to throw up enforcement networks akin to the old fugitive slave laws in the antebellum United States. Freedom of travel is being threatened by paranoid responses to the overblown threat of terrorism -- but at least one good group is fighting to counter this threat. To counteract these threats, basic freedoms must be protected by our courts from encroachment by other governmental branches. The U.S. Supreme Court counts both voting and interstate travel as fundamental rights. Of these fundamental rights, travel -- but especially international travel -- the right to pass through the airports and Brandenburg Gates and Checkpoint Charlies of the world -- is by far the more important.