Sir John James Cowperthwaite, born in 1915 in Scotland; after finishing university at Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1941, he entered the Colonial Administration Service, and was sent to Hong Kong. He was seconded to Sierra Leone from 1942-45, but returned in 1945 to oversee the financial reconstruction of the colony. From 1961-1971 he served as Financial Secretary to Hong Kong. After his retirement from public service in 1971, he gained a post as the International Adviser to Jardine Fleming & Co, Ltd., where he remained until 1981.

With a biography like that he might easily have remained an obscure footnote in British history; fortunately, he is now credited with almost single-handedly guiding, or not guiding, as the case may be, Hong Kong's economic prosperity after World War II, and has since become a hero of sorts to libertarians and authors of econ. textbooks everywhere.

Sent in 1945 to oversee Hong Kong's development, he made the uncommonly astute observation that the economy was actually already doing quite nicely (given the circumstances), and engaged a firm policy of doing as little as possible to interfere. During his tenure as Financial Secretary, he capped individual income tax at 15% and made all profits from investment tax-exempt. Government spending hovered at around 15% (compared to the United State's 40%), supporting education, a mimimum of welfare, and almost no arts or public works (culture can bloody well take care of itself, thank you).

Most remarkably, he refused to collect statistics: "...we might indeed be right to be apprehensive lest the availability of such figures might lead, by a reversal of cause and effect, to policies designed to have a direct effect on the economy".

A firm believer in Adam Smith's invisible hand, he founded the modern concept of "positive non-intervention", promoting laissez-faire capitalism in a colony at a time when Britain itself was pushing ever closer to socialism.

Whatever your opinions, a few statistics do exist. During his time, exports grew by an average of 13.8% a year, and industrial wages doubled. The per capita GDP of Hong Kong rose from $2,279 (measured in 1987 dollars), roughly 30% of that in Great Britain, in 1965 to $22,527, 137% of that in Great Britain, in 1995.

I'll end here with a nice little quote by Sir Cowperthwaite himself, lifted from P.J. O'Rourke's Eat the Rich: the long run the aggregate decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgement in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is less likely to do harm than the centralized decisions of a government; and certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster".

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