Maybe it was when my wife and I were getting our picture taken in front of the soon-to-open Lamborghini showroom here in Manila; and the fact that my nephew (who works as a programmer for Chevron here) told us that there was a Maserati showroom that would open up a little way down the street. Just three hours earlier, I was getting a haircut and pedicure (yes, pedicure) at a small barbershop a block from our family compound. And the cost of my haircut and pedicure? Just over four bucks.
Welcome to the Libertarian paradise, where libertarian economic theory can and does work, enabling achievements that would be frankly impossible in America.
The Philippines isn’t perfectly libertarian; as with perfect democracy or perfect communism, perfect libertarianism is not an achievable result but rather a philosophical goal. The barber shop is a good example: of the six people working there, three are openly gay, two are transvestites, and the manager is a woman whose biggest challenge, I’m told, is preventing catfights among the workers. One of the transvestites was giving my son a haircut at the time and it bothered my son not at all, but he did tell me that almost anyone back at high school in Washington would never have set foot in the place because of the peer-enforced cultural fear of LGBTs. But cultural tolerance of LGBTs is a libertarian tenet, is it not? Outside of certain religious lines in the sand (abortion and birth control), the Philippine people are about as tolerant of others as it gets.
As with their culture, the Philippine economy embodies many libertarian tenets. In the article referenced, I asked if libertarianism leads to a happier population. But now I am exploring the obvious success of a significant portion of the Philippine economy. For those readers of this article who live in a major city, look outside and count the construction cranes you see being used to build skyscrapers and high-rise condos. How many do you see? Four? Five? Maybe even ten? In Manila, there are at least a hundred construction cranes in use right now; I daresay probably more than in any entire American state! For instance, there’s a suburb of Manila called Fort Bonifacio Global City. It’s a little over the size of downtown Seattle (you know, the home of Boeing, Microsoft, and Starbucks, and where, in good years one can see maybe five construction cranes at one time) But Fort Bonifacio is a planned city of skyscrapers and high-rise condos and gorgeous landscaping, very clean and orderly, no homeless, a first-class city that would be the pride of any state in America.
And it was all built in the past ten years.
Think about that! Manila is a poverty-ridden city in a third-world nation where it’s not unusual at all for people to live on less than two dollars a day, yet this city constructed an ultra-modern suburb over half the size of Seattle, all in ten years. I think it’s safe to say that even the richest city in America, New York City, could not even hope to do this. Manila’s not the only example, or the biggest. In the past thirty years, Shanghai went from having zero skyscrapers to now having nearly twice as many skyscrapers as New York City. Like the Philippines, China has an economy (if not a culture) that is largely libertarian in practice, and they have been able to achieve something that is beyond America’s capability even though our economy is still so much larger than theirs.
So how is it that Shanghai and Manila are accomplishing feats that no American city could hope to match? I believe the first half of the answer lies with the free-trade economics philosophy championed by Ronald Reagan as I described in my article The Global Upside of Reaganomics, because free trade has allowed trillions in American capital (and tens of thousands of our factories, our precious manufacturing capability) to flow overseas, thus enabling third world nations to build beautiful, gleaming cities.
The second half of the answer is less palatable to the cultured tongue. As we were leaving Fort Bonifacio Global City, perhaps a kilometer away from that soon-to-open Lamborghini showroom, we returned to the reality of life in a third world nation: children walking among the cars in the street selling anything for a few pesos, homeless living in ramshackle huts made of cardboard and salvaged plastic sheets, you get the picture. It’s like the yawning gulf between the litter-strewn mean streets and the utopian mansion of the CEO in Blade Runner, right down to the urchins prowling the streets, numerous empty buildings rotting in decay, only more so. The tired, poor, and wretched refuse of a third-world nation provide an inexpensive and compliant labor pool for the rich and powerful to accomplish much more than they ever could in the socialized economies of the first world nations.
“True libertarians love the poor because a capitalist society needs a poor underclass in order to function efficiently. This is why we support open immigration”.
The economies of China and the Philippines are solid proof that libertarian economies can not only work, but can accomplish wonders beyond the capability of the more socialized first world nations. To my liberal eye, it is also proof that trickle-down economics never trickle down to the people. America could not hope to accomplish such wonders as modern Shanghai, as Manila’s Fort Bonifacio Global City, because (Republican efforts notwithstanding) since the New Deal, we’ve had a system that ensured that nearly all Americans got some of the benefit of our national prosperity. One must also wonder if these libertarian economies will continue to prosper once their markets, the rich Western nations, are no longer able to lay their golden eggs.
And that is the choice that America faces: to return to the Keynesian principles of the New Deal which enabled us to have not only the world’s mightiest economy but also the world’s highest standard of living, or to continue to embrace the Austrian school libertarian economic principles expounded by the GOP candidates. We might match or even exceed the same great feats of construction that mark today’s Southeast Asia, but there’s a price, and it would be paid in the coin of suffering and misery of an ever-increasing segment of the American population, the poor who would find out first hand just how deep poverty really is for those who live in third world nations, with those beautiful, gleaming skyscrapers in plain view, but forever out of touch.