Chequebook a winner when it comes to patriot games, Mr Tang

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 June, 2006, 12:00am

'At present, individual interest overrides organisation interest. Organisation interest is above industry interest. Industry interest takes precedence over society interest. Hong Kong interest overrides the nation's interest. This is our shortcoming.'

Henry Tang Ying-yen

Financial Secretary

SCMP, June 5, page 1

'In a market economy, how investors view Hong Kong is the best way to view competitiveness. In that narrow sense, because they have to put their money where their mouth is.'

Henry Tang Ying-yen

SCMP, June 5, page 4

OKAY, HENRY, LET'S GET this one worked out. Do these investors suffer from a shortcoming because they set their own interests first or would it rather be our market economy that suffers from a shortcoming if the self-interest of investors did not determine its direction?

You leave me a little puzzled, you see, as the only narrow sense that I can make out here is one in which two conflicting thoughts are so narrowly conceived that they do not take account of each other.

Try keeping them both in mind at the same time, difficult as that might be, and then turn to your dictionary to look up the meaning of the word 'contradiction'. A new world of understanding awaits you.

And, when you have done this, I have another question for you. What is the nation's interest?

It may seem a simple question but it is not a simplistic one. I have a good understanding of what my own interests are. I also have a fair idea of what my organisation's interests are. I have less understanding of what my industry's interests are, little of what Hong Kong's interests are and next to nothing of what the nation's interests are.

But it's easy, you may say. The nation's interests are peace, justice and prosperity for all with as high a sustainable economic growth rate as will deliver these things fully and as soon as possible.

How odd. Those are exactly my interests as well of those of my organisation, of my industry and of Hong Kong. The only difference is that I want them for myself first, as my organisation wants them for itself first and so on.

The difficulty lies not so much in what we want but how we go about achieving these goals. I have a pretty good idea of how to go about doing it for myself within the limitations I face but I really don't know how anyone can do it for an entire nation.

Lots of people do think they can, of course, and not just now alone or in China alone but right throughout the history of the entire world. To some measure they all want to create what we call command economies. First we shall build this industry and then we shall build that one and soon we shall have achieved communism.

But somehow it always ends up in poverty and misery. The people who rise to power in order to command all these things invariably look after their own interests first and then we have heaven on earth for one or a few rather than for many.

I do not say it never works. Give peace, technology transfers and foreign investment to a poor nation and if it has the special luck of public-spirited autocrats, that nation can indeed make its first steps to prosperity through a command economy. It has happened in China. I have yet to see a wealthy nation created this way, however.

The world's wealthy economies have all taken the other route - let people decide for themselves what they want to do. Then make the competition between them equitable through a fair system of laws and through civil liberties that allow no government total authority over any of them.

The result is mysterious magic. When you set the nation's interests, or rather your ideas of the nation's interests, above the interests of the industry, organisation or individual, you generally wind up serving the interests of all them badly. But when you run the sequence of interests the other way round, from the individual up to the nation, you wind up serving all of them well.

It seems odd but it is not. The individual knows better than anyone else how best to serve himself and knows it much better than he knows how to serve the nation best. Base your system on the choice of the individual and you have that system right at its foundation.

Now, pardon me for what seems a trite lesson on the wonderful benefits of civil liberties but I had those lessons drummed into me when I was a schoolboy and Henry Tang never seems to have had them at all, which, I suppose, is one reason that his thoughts on the matter are so confused.

That shortcoming of which you speak, Henry, is the one that made you rich. You can still be patriotic if you want but don't tell me that you made your money by setting the nation's interests above your own.

If you feel bad about it now, you can always make up for it. Haul out your chequebook and make the payee out as Government of the HKSAR. Enough others of us do it every year.

Did you ever do it yourself before your drew a salary as financial secretary or did you perhaps take the bulk of your income through untaxed dividends and capital gains? If the second of these two, would you mind keeping your mouth shut in the future about civic responsibility?