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The Luck of the Irish

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"The Luck of the Irish"

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Here’s Chris Edwards, director of tax policy at the Cato Institute and author of Downsizing Government writing at National Review online in March 2007 about how everyone would be more like Ireland if only they listened to rightwing economic policy:

Ireland has boomed in recent years, and it now boasts the fourth highest gross domestic product per capita in the world. In the mid-1980s, Ireland was a backwater with an average income level 30 percent below that of the European Union. Today, Irish incomes are 40 percent above the EU average.

Was this dramatic change the luck of the Irish? Not at all. It resulted from a series of hard-headed decisions that shifted Ireland from big government stagnation to free market growth. After years of high inflation, double-digit unemployment rates, and soaring government debt that topped 100 percent of GDP, Irish policymakers began to cut spending in the late 1980s in a desperate bid to recover financial stability.

Irish government spending fell from more than 50 percent of GDP in the 1980s to 34 percent by 2005. For Europe that is a triumph of restraint, given that the average size of government across 25 EU countries today is 47 percent of GDP. And Ireland has steadily reduced its tax rates. The top individual income tax rate was cut from 65 percent in 1985 to 42 percent today. The capital gains tax rate was cut from 40 to 20 percent in 1999.

However, the key to Ireland’s success has been its excellent tax climate for business. In 1980, Ireland established a corporate tax rate for manufacturing of just 10 percent. That low rate was subsequently extended to high-technology, financial services, and other industries. More recently, Ireland established a flat 12.5 percent tax rate on all corporations — one of the lowest rates in the world, and just one-third of the U.S. rate.

James D. Gwartney and Robert Lawson writing for Cato back in 2005 said that Ireland should be seen along with Iceland as an important case study in the success of free market economics.

Today of course Ireland is a total disaster. I wouldn’t try to blame their property crash on low tax rates. But by the same token a frightening number of pundits went “all-in” on the idea that Ireland’s conserva-friendly tax policies were behind a boom that was in fact driven by a real estate bubble. There needs to be some accountability for this, because it appears to quite genuinely be the case that relaxed financial regulation is a can’t-lose strategy for (temporarily) attracting financial inflows, sparking an asset price bubble, and boosting growth. But that doesn’t mean countries should do it. And we need a system of international praise and esteem that’s not so blind to these issues.

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