Monday, September 04, 2006

Estonia: Land of the Free?

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I confess to know next to nothing about the country of Estonia, the subject of John Tierney's most recent Times op ed.

That said, if Tierney's facts are correct, US politicians could learn a thing or two from its former prime minister, Mart Laar, who was largely responsible for the transformation of this formerly "impoverished part of the Soviet Union" into this year's number one ranked country on the State of the World Liberty Index.

By their own definition:
"The State of World Liberty Project monitors the level of individual and economic freedom and limited government in countries around the world. We are also working to become a resource on the progress of libertarian and free market liberal political movements, as well as an international forum for discussion for people involved in these movements."
Given the criteria and knowing that Estonia is number one, you're probably dying to know how the US fared. Do we still live in 'the land of the free'?

Not exactly. According to the Index:
"The United States of America came in at #8 - surprisingly low, considering that the American government model was driven by classical liberalism and limited government, and it has been the model for other countries pursuing free markets and individual liberties to follow. Unfortunately, recent government crackdowns on free press, increased restrictions on individual freedom, high personal and corporate income taxes, refusal to grant military prisoners a criminal trial and the rapid expansion of government all contributed to the US's downward spiral away from being the ideal model of freedom."
Looks like Dubya has finally managed to wage a successful war -- against America! And freedom!

Congrats, Georgie. Daddy must be so proud.

New Europe's Boomtown
By John Tierney
The New York Times
Tallinn, Estonia

Philippe Benoit du Rey is not one of those gloomy Frenchmen who frets about the threat to Gallic civilization from McDonald’s and Microsoft. He thinks international competition is good for his countrymen. He’s confident France will flourish in a global economy — eventually.

But for now, he has left the Loire Valley for Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and the economic model for New Europe. It’s a boomtown with a beautifully preserved medieval quarter along with new skyscrapers, gleaming malls and sprawling housing developments: Prague meets Houston, except that Houston’s economy is cool by comparison.

Economists call Estonia the Baltic Tiger, the sequel to the Celtic Tiger as Europe’s success story, and its policies are more radical than Ireland’s. On this year’s State of World Liberty Index, a ranking of countries by their economic and political freedom, Estonia is in first place, just ahead of Ireland and seven places ahead of the U.S. (North Korea comes in last at 159th.)

It transformed itself from an isolated, impoverished part of the Soviet Union thanks to a former prime minister, Mart Laar, a history teacher who took office not long after Estonia was liberated. He was 32 years old and had read just one book on economics: “Free to Choose,” by Milton Friedman, which he liked especially because he knew Friedman was despised by the Soviets.

Laar was politically naïve enough to put the theories into practice. Instead of worrying about winning trade wars, he unilaterally disarmed by abolishing almost all tariffs. He welcomed foreign investors and privatized most government functions (with the help of a privatization czar who had formerly been the manager of the Swedish pop group Abba). He drastically cut taxes on businesses and individuals, instituting a simple flat income tax of 26 percent.

These reforms were barely approved by the legislature amid warnings of disaster: huge budget deficits, legions of factory workers and farmers who would lose out to foreign competition. But today the chief concerns are what to do with the budget surplus and how to deal with a labor shortage.

Wages have soared thanks to jobs created by foreign companies like Elcoteq of Finland, which bought a failing electronics factory and now employs more than 3,000 people making phones for Nokia and Ericsson. Foreign investors worked with local software engineers to create Skype, the Internet telephone service, and the country has become so Web-savvy that it’s known as E-stonia.

“The spirit is so different here,” Benoit du Rey says. “If you come to the government here and want to start a company, they’ll tell you, ‘Good, do it right now.’ Then you can work free without being bothered by stupid things. Here I talk to my accountant once a month. In France, for every seven or eight workers, you need one full-time worker just to fill out the forms for taxes and other rules.”

It took him less than two weeks last year to start his company, Aruzza. Now he has employees from five countries working on deals like importing Spanish ham, exporting Estonian sofas to France and finding programmers in Tallinn to write software for a California company.

He is not a free-market purist — he likes the health care and social services provided by countries like France. But to pay for their safety nets, he figures they need to cut regulations and taxes so they can have robust economies like Estonia’s, which grew about 10 percent last year.

The growth over the past decade has produced so much unanticipated revenue that the tax rate is being gradually reduced to 20 percent. Laar’s political rivals still complain that his flat tax unfairly helps the rich, but as he notes, the level of income inequality in Estonia actually declined during the past decade.

“People think a progressive tax system is fairer,” Laar says. “But in the real world rich people find a way to avoid high taxes. With a flat tax, they stop worrying about sheltering their income or working in the gray economy. There is less corruption because it’s easier to pay the tax.”

Since Laar started the revolution, the flat tax has been adopted by its Baltic neighbors and a half-dozen other countries, including Russia, Ukraine and Romania. Such radical reform is still taboo in Western European countries like France, but they can’t seal their borders against this threat. If they don’t go to Estonia for a lesson in economics, their enterprising citizens will make the trip on their own.

Photo credit: John Tierney. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

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Anonymous said...

Unknown Candidate, Your comments are perfect. Thanks.

On other matters, take a look at
I was wondering if anyone has done carbon-14 testing on the memo?

Anonymous said...

If you think it's Dubya's fault that the US isn't #1 on the list, you need to read up on US history. We're better off now than we've been for about 100 years in that department.

The Unknown Candidate said...


You are the one who needs to "read up." I defy you to name even one way in which we have more freedom in the US today vs. pre-Bush. Bush and his cabal have done more to ignore their Constitutional responsibilities than any administration in our history. The facts, dearie, speak for themselves. For starters, read the quote included in the above post regarding what the Index had to say about the U.S.

Comments such as yours are so pitifully ignorant, they don't bear even this much of a response.

The Unknown Candidate said...


Please expand on your comment. I'd very much like to hear your Estonian point of view. Do you live there now? If not, where do you live now? What were your experiences -- freedom-wise -- in Estonia?

Anonymous said...

I can't believe Estonia beat us to the top spot.

/reminds self to vote for pro-free market party at next Irish election

The Lazy Pundit said...

By the way, Estonia has a national health system and they are still have a more capitalist and libertarian society than we do (according to the list, anyway). There's no reason we can't do this and still be free.

The Lazy Pundit said...

Here is a link to a description of the Estonian health care system at a university website:

The Unknown Candidate said...

Lazy Pundit, I couldn't agree more. Thanks for the link.