Not everyone is an entrepreneur. Still, everyone should try—if only once—to start a business. After all, it is small and medium enterprises that are the key to job creation. There is also something uniquely educational about sitting at the desk where the buck stops, in a dreary office you've just rented, working day and night with a handful of employees just to break even.
As an academic, I'm just an amateur capitalist. Still, over the past 15 years I've started small ventures in both the U.S. and the U.K. In the process I've learned something surprising: It's much easier to do in the U.K. There seemed to be much more regulation in the U.S., not least the headache of sorting out health insurance for my few employees. And there were certainly more billable hours from lawyers.
This set me thinking. We are assured by vociferous economists that economic growth would be higher in the U.S. and unemployment lower if only the government would run even bigger deficits and/or the Fed would print even more money. But what if the difficulty lies elsewhere, in problems that no amount of fiscal or monetary stimulus can overcome?
Nearly all development economists agree that good institutions—legislatures, courts, administrative agencies—are crucial. When poor countries improve their institutions, economic growth soon accelerates. But what about rich countries? If poor countries can get rich by improving their institutions, is it not possible that rich countries can get poor by allowing their institutions to degenerate? I want to suggest that it is.
Consider the evidence from the annual "Doing Business" reports from the World Bank and International Finance Corporation. Since 2006 the report has published data for most of the world's countries on the total number of days it takes to start a business, get a construction permit, register a property, pay taxes, get an export or import license and enforce a contract. If one simply adds together the total number of days it would take to carry out all seven of these procedures sequentially, it is possible to construct a simple measure of how slowly—or fast—a country's bureaucracy moves.
Seven years of data suggest that most of the world's countries are successfully making it easier to do business: The total number of days it takes to carry out the seven procedures has come down, in some cases very substantially. In only around 20 countries has the total duration of dealing with "red tape" gone up. The sixth-worst case is none other than the U.S., where the total number of days has increased by 18% to 433. Other members of the bottom 10, using this metric, are Zimbabwe, Burundi and Yemen (though their absolute numbers are of course much higher).
Why is it getting harder to do business in America? Part of the answer is excessively complex legislation. A prime example is the 848-page Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of July 2010 (otherwise known as the Dodd-Frank Act), which, among other things, required that regulators create 243 rules, conduct 67 studies and issue 22 periodic reports. Comparable in its complexity is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (906 pages), which is also in the process of spawning thousands of pages of regulation. You don't have to be opposed to tighter financial regulation or universal health care to recognize that something is wrong with laws so elaborate that almost no one affected has the time or the will to read them.
Who benefits from the growth of complex and cumbersome regulation? The answer is: lawyers, not forgetting lobbyists and compliance departments. For complexity is not the friend of the little man. It is the friend of the deep pocket. It is the friend of cronyism.
We used to have the rule of law. Now it is tempting to say we have the rule of lawyers, which is something different. For the lawyers can also make money even in the absence of complex legislation.
It has long been recognized that the U.S. tort system is exceptionally expensive. Indeed, tort reform is something few people will openly argue against. Yet the plague of class-action lawsuits continues unabated. Regular customers of Southwest Airlines recently received this email: "Did you receive a Southwest Airlines drink coupon through the purchase of a Business Select ticket prior to August 1, 2010, and never redeem it? If yes, a legal Settlement provides a Replacement Drink Voucher, entitling you to a free drink aboard a Southwest flight, for every such drink coupon you did not redeem."
This is not the product of the imagination of some modern-day Charles Dickens. It is a document arising from the class-action case, In re Southwest Airlines Voucher Litigation, No. 11-cv-8176, which came before Judge Matthew F. Kennelly of the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. As the circular explains: "This Action arose out of Southwest's decision, effective August 1, 2010, to only accept drink coupons received by Business Select customers with the purchase of a Business Select ticket on the date of the ticketed travel. The Plaintiffs in this case allege Southwest, in making that decision, breached its contract with Class Members who previously received drink coupons," etc.
As often happens in such cases, Southwest decided to settle out of court. Recipients of the email will have been nonplused to learn that the settlement "will provide Replacement Drink Vouchers to Class Members who submit timely and valid Claim Forms." One wonders how many have bothered.
Cui bono? The answer is, of course, the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. Having initially pitched for "up to $7 million in fees, costs and expenses," these ingenious jurists settled for fees of $3 million "plus costs not to exceed $30,000" from Southwest.
Canada's Fraser Institute has been compiling an "Economic Freedom" index since 1980, one component of which is a measure of the quality of a country's legal system and property rights. In the light of a case like the one described above, there is nothing surprising about the recent decline in U.S. performance. In 2000 U.S. law scored 9.23 out of 10. The most recent score (for 2010) was 7.12.
Such indexes must be used with caution, but the Fraser index is not the only piece of evidence suggesting that the rule of law in the U.S. is not what it was. The World Justice Project uses a completely separate methodology to assess countries' legal systems. The latest WJP report ranks the U.S. 17th out of 97 countries for the extent to which the law limits the power of government, 18th for the absence of corruption, 19th for regulatory enforcement, 22nd for access to civil justice and the maintenance of order and security, 25th for fundamental rights, and 26th for the effectiveness of criminal justice. Of all the former British colonies in the report, the U.S. ranks behind New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Canada, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom—though it does beat Botswana.
The decline of American institutions is no secret. Yet it is one of those strange "unknown knowns" that is well documented but largely ignored. Each year, the World Economic Forum publishes its Global Competitiveness Index. Since it introduced its current methodology in 2004, the U.S. score has declined by 6%. (In the same period China's score has improved by 12%.) An important component of the index is provided by 22 different measures of institutional quality, based on the WEF's Executive Opinion Survey. Typical questions are "How would you characterize corporate governance by investors and boards of directors in your country?" and "In your country, how common is diversion of public funds to companies, individuals, or groups due to corruption?" The startling thing about this exercise is how poorly the U.S. fares.
In only one category out of 22 is the U.S. ranked in the global top 20 (the strength of investor protection). In seven categories it does not even make the top 50. For example, the WEF ranks the U.S. 87th in terms of the costs imposed on business by "organized crime (mafia-oriented racketeering, extortion)." In every single category, Hong Kong does better.
At the same time, the U.S. has seen a marked deterioration in its World Governance Indicators. In terms of "voice and accountability," "government effectiveness," "regulatory quality" and especially "control of corruption," the U.S. scores have all gone down since the WGI project began in the mid-1990s. It would be tempting to say that America is turning Latin, were it not for the fact that a number of Latin American countries have been improving their governance scores over the same period.
What is the process at work here? Perhaps this is a victory from beyond the grave for classical Western political theory. Republics, after all, were regarded by most ancient political philosophers as condemned to decadence, or to imperial corruption. This was the lesson of Rome. Democracy was always likely to give way to oligarchy or tyranny. This was the lesson of the French Revolution. The late Mancur Olson had a modern version of such cyclical models, arguing that all political systems were bound to become the captives, over time, of special interests. The advantage enjoyed by West Germany and Japan after World War II, he suggested, was that all the rent-seeking elites of the pre-1945 period had been swept away by defeat. This was why Britain won the war but lost the peace.
Whatever the root causes of the deterioration of American institutions, smart people are starting to notice it. Last year Michael Porter of Harvard Business School published a report based on a large-scale survey of HBS alumni. Among the questions he asked was where the U.S. was "falling behind" relative to other countries. The top three lagging indicators named were: the effectiveness of the political system, the K-12 education system and the complexity of the tax code. Regulation came sixth, efficiency of the legal framework eighth.
Asked to name "the most problematic factors for doing business" in the U.S., respondents to the WEF's most recent Executive Opinion Survey put "inefficient government bureaucracy" at the top, followed by tax rates and tax regulations.
All this should not be interpreted as yet another prophecy of the imminent decline and fall of the U.S., however. There is some light in the gloom. According to the most recent United Nations projections, the share of the U.S. population that is over 65 will reach 25% only at the very end of this century. Japan has already passed that milestone; Germany will be next. By midcentury, both countries will have around a third of their population age 65 or older.
More imminently, a revolution in the extraction of shale gas and tight oil, via hydraulic fracking, is transforming the U.S. from energy dependence to independence. Not only could the U.S., at least for a time, re-emerge as the world's biggest oil producer; the lower electricity costs resulting from the fossil-fuel boom are already triggering a revival of U.S. manufacturing in the Southeast and elsewhere.
In a functioning federal system, the pace of institutional degeneration is not uniform. America's four "growth corridors"—the Great Plains, the Gulf Coast, the Intermountain West and the Southeast—are growing not just because they have natural resources but also because state governments in those regions are significantly more friendly to business. There are already heartening signs of a great regeneration in states like Texas and North Dakota.
"In America you have a right to be stupid—if you want to be." Secretary of State John Kerry made that remark off the cuff in February, speaking to a group of students in Berlin. It is not a right the founding fathers felt they needed explicitly to enshrine. But it has always been there, and America's leaders have frequently been willing to exercise it.
Yes, we Americans have the right to be stupid if we want to be. We can carry on pretending that our economic problems can be solved with the help of yet more fiscal stimulus or quantitative easing. Or we can face up to the institutional impediments to growth I have described here.
Not many economists talk about them, it's true. But that's because not many economists run businesses.
Adapted from Mr. Ferguson's new book, "The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die," to be published by Penguin Press on Thursday.