John James Cowperthwaite

British colonial administrator (1915-2006)

Sir John James Cowperthwaite KBE CMG (25 April 191521 January 2006) was a British civil servant and the Financial Secretary of Hong Kong from 1961 to 1971. His free market policies of positive non-interventionism are widely credited with turning post-war Hong Kong into a thriving global financial center.



Official Report of Proceedings of the Hong Kong Legislative Council

  • I am confident, however old-fashioned this may sound, that funds left in the hands of the public will come into the Exchequer with interest at the time in the future when we need them.
    • February 28, 1962, page 51.
  • The fact that previous generations have handed down to us a substantial public heritage by way of roads, port, etc. almost completely free of debt, seems to me to impose some limitation on the validity of the theory that by borrowing we should, or could, pass on the burden of development to the next generation.
    • February 28, 1962, page 55.
  • An infant industry, if coddled, tends to remain an infant industry and never grows up or expands.
    • March 30, 1962, page 131.
  • Official opposition to overall economic planning and planning controls has been characterized in a recent editorial as "Papa knows best". But it is precisely because Papa does not know best that I believe that Government should not presume to tell any businessman or industrialist what he should or should not do, far less what he may or not do; and no matter how it may be dressed up that is what planning is.
    • March 30, 1962, page 133.
  • Over a wide field of our economy it is still the better course to rely on the nineteenth century's "hidden hand" than to thrust clumsy bureaucratic fingers into its sensitive mechanism. In particular, we cannot afford to damage its mainspring, freedom of competitive enterprise.
    • March 30, 1962, page 133.
  • One trouble is that when Government gets into a business it tends to make it uneconomic for anyone else.
    • February 27, 1963, page 47.
  • I will not be proposing a course which has been under some public discussion recently — deficit financing. It is wholly inappropriate to our economic situation. In its least extreme form it is based on the theory that additional money generated by a Government deficit (and given currency, as necessary, by use of the printing press) will stimulate consumption and thereby production, in time to match the excess money with goods before real inflationary harm is done. Unfortunately we don't, and can't, produce more than a small fraction of what we consume, and increased consumption would merely mean increased imports without matching exports; and a severe balance of payment crisis, which would destroy Hong Kong's credit and confidence in the Hong Kong dollar; and which we could not cure without coming close to ruining ourselves. Keynes was not writing with our situation in mind. In this hard world we have to earn before we spend.
    • February 27, 1963, page 50.
  • I am also, I must confess, a little sceptical of the theory that we have a right, if we could, to pass on our capital burden to future generations. I remarked last year in this context that our predecessors had not passed any significant part of their burden on to us.
    • March 29, 1963, page 134.
  • We enjoy a considerable net inflow of capital and I am sure that a condition of its coming, and staying, is that it is free to flow out again. It is also important for Hong Kong's status as a financial centre that there should be a maximum freedom of capital movement both in and out.
    • March 29, 1963, page 134.
  • I should like to begin with a philosophical comment. I do not think that when one is speaking of hardships or benefits one can reasonably speak in terms of classes or social groups but only in terms of individuals.
    • March 29, 1963, page 135.
  • Economists of the modern school will no doubt protest that I have said nothing of the use of budget deficits or surpluses for the control of the economy in general. I doubt if such techniques would ever be appropriate in Hong Kong's exposed economic position; and I think they are certainly not appropriate at present, when in strict orthodoxy they would suggest the need to plan for a very substantial surplus "to take the heat out of the economy". Although we have in fact run substantial surpluses in recent years we have not done so with deflationary effect because we have not removed them from the economy but have left them inside the Colony's banking system to continue to work for the economy. $500 million or 55% of reserves are so held at present.
    • February 26, 1964, page 47.
  • Money cannot be converted into houses or trained teachers or hospitals at the touch of a magic wand. There are limitations to our physical and intellectual resources.
    • February 26, 1964, page 51.
  • A glimmer of light is better than no illumination at all.
    • February 26, 1964, page 52.
  • Revenue has increased in this way is in no small measure, I am convinced, due to our low tax policy which has helped to generate an economic expansion in the face of unfavourable circumstances
    • February 26, 1964, page 53.
  • If one accepts that in general social services should be made available to all on the basis of ability to pay, one has the choice of two opposite principles of action, although they need not be mutually exclusive—either progressive taxation and free services or fees covering costs with remission for those who cannot afford them. The former method is appropriate, in my view, in rich developed countries where the principle of progressive taxation can be applied without unduly adverse economic or social results, and the wastes inherent in full and free services can be afforded. In less advanced or poorer countries, where neither economy nor society is geared to progressive taxation and waste cannot be tolerated, fees remittable in case of need seem to me clearly more appropriate.
    • February 26, 1964, page 54.
  • Many of our services cost more than do similar services in Europe, because, although we have a substantial quantitative deficiency of public services, the decision-takers and policy-makers, both inside and outside Government as I have said before today, being themselves from the better-off (to use a popular euphemism) sectors of our society, not only demand the highest standards of provision of public services to meet what they consider their own essential needs (for example, in public car parks); but also find it difficult to think of provision for the rest of the population in terms of standards relative to our real total resources.
    • February 24, 1966, page 72.
  • It seems to me that we have three choices; first, public services of high standard and cost but of limited scope, leaving unfilled a substantial part of the present gap, not necessarily benefiting those in real need and benefiting many who are not in need at all (this has been our historical approach); second, public services to meet the requirements of all, with the beneficiaries making a contribution by way of fee according to their means, and with adequate provision for complete remission in suitable cases; or third, universal public services provided for rich and poor alike on terms the poorest can afford; that is, the welfare state where all benefit and the whole cost is met by the taxpayer in general. I think it is well-known that I am an advocate of the second approach.
    • February 24, 1966, page 72.
  • I would suggest to my honourable Friend that the foreign investor is at least as discouraged by high national debt for that, as all example shows, is the surest precursor of high taxation.
    • March 24, 1966, page 213.
  • I largely agree with those that hold that Government should not in general interfere with the course of the economy merely on the strength of its own commercial judgment. If we cannot rely on the judgment of individual businessmen, taking their own risks, we have no future anyway.
    • March 24, 1966, page 215.
  • I still believe that, in the long run, the aggregate of the decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is likely to do less harm than the centralized decisions of a Government; and certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster. As I said earlier in this debate, our economic medicine may be painful but it is fast and powerful because it can act freely.
    • March 24, 1966, page 216.
  • My own views on all matters of public revenue and public expenditure are conditioned by an acute appreciation of whose is the sacrifice that produces public revenue and to whom accrues the benefit of public spending.
    • March 24, 1966, page 216.
  • One of these is an increasing awareness of the benefits to our economy, particularly in terms of investment and enterprise, both local and from overseas, of not having the inquisitorial type of tax system inevitably associated with a full income tax. Another is that even I, who have always believed in the vigour of our economy under our present tax regime, have been surprised by the growth of revenue generated at our present tax rates.
    • March 29, 1967, page 248.
  • Deficit financing proper is rather the process whereby a Government spends more money that it withdraws from the economy by taxation, borrowing, running down reserves, etc.; thereby causing in most circumstances, and very acutely in ours, monetary inflation and severe pressure on the balance of payments.
    • March 29, 1967, page 249.
  • Simply put, money comes here and stays here because it can go if it wants to go. Try to hedge it around with prohibitions, and it would go and we could not stop it; and no more would come.
    • March 29, 1967, page 253.
  • I have three objections to my honourable Friend’s wider proposal that exchange control powers be used to require the fixing of exchange by merchants on entering into both export and import contracts. The first is that I think it excessively paternalistic to require a merchant to protect himself against a risk he is prepared to take. Secondly, I think it wrong to impose a condition which is likely to cause one group of merchants a loss, for the purpose of providing the other group with protection at no cost to them. Thirdly, I do not think it is in fact practicable to enforce such a system. I am sorry to be so negative, but I am sure that the solution to my honourable Friend’s problem should not depend on compulsion but on the provision of voluntary protection on insurance principles.
    • March 27, 1968, page 208.
  • I am afraid that I do not believe that any body of men can have enough knowledge of the past, the present and the future to establish “development priorities” — which presumably means procuring some developments as being good and prohibiting others as being bad.
    • March 27, 1968, page 212.
  • What mystifies me is how he or any one else can determine what is a desirable type of industry such as should qualify for special assistance of this kind. In my own simple way I should have thought that a desirable industry was, almost by definition, one which could establish itself and thrive without special assistance in ordinary market conditions. Anything else suggests a degree of omniscience which I, at least, am not prepared to credit even the most expert with. I trust the commercial judgment only of those who are themselves taking the risks.
    • March 27, 1968, page 212.
  • One of the things that most surprises me about my honourable Friend’s remarks is that he characterizes his proposal for state intervention in, and control of, industry as “innovation and a spirit of adventure” and condemns free private enterprise as “prosaic precedent”. This is a strange paradox. I would put it precisely the other way round. What he advocates is based on the “prosaic precedent” of many of our rivals who have to resort to wooing industry with artificial aids and have had remarkably little success at it. Recent events have shown that enterprising spirits still prefer our economic freedom to the restrictive swaddling clothes offered elsewhere. Possibly I am a romantic in this but I, for one, do not believe that our spirit of adventure is in need of artificial stimulation — nor do I believe that we can afford the wasteful application of our scarce resources which they would entail—we are neither desperate enough, nor rich enough, for such expedients to make economic sense. It is, of course, all the fashion today to cry in any commercial difficulty, “why doesn’t the Government do something about it”. But I would rather go back to the old days when even the most modest attempt by Government to intervene in commerce and industry was rudely rebuffed.
    • March 27, 1968, page 213.
  • But what I really believe is that both he and Mr Wong are innocently guilty of the twentieth century fallacy that technology can be applied to the conduct of human affairs. They cannot believe that anything can work efficiently unless it has been programmed by a computer and have lost faith in the forces of the market and the human actions and reactions that make it up. But no computer has yet been devised which will produce accurate results from a diet of opinion and emotion. We suffer a great deal today from the bogus certainties and precisions of the pseudo-sciences which include all the social sciences including economics. An article I recently read referred to the academic’s “infernal economic arithmetic which ignores human responses”. Technology is admirable on the factory floor but largely irrelevant to human affairs.
    • March 27, 1968, page 213.
  • If people want consultative government, the price is increased complexity and delay in arriving at decisions. If they want speed of government, then they must accept a greater degree of authoritarianism. I suspect that the real answer is that most people prefer the latter so long, that is, as government’s decisions conform with their own views.
    • March 27, 1968, page 215.
  • What gives me concern in so much of the comment is the implication that the people of Hong Kong have to be given a reward, like children, for being good last year, and bribed, like children, into being good next year. I myself repudiate this paternalistic, indeed colonialist, attitude as a gross insult to our people
    • March 27, 1968, page 215.
  • I myself have no doubt in the past tended to appear to many to be more concerned with the creation of wealth than with its distribution. I must confess that there is a degree of truth in this, but to the extent that it is true, it has been because of my conviction that the rapid growth of the economy, and the pressure that comes with it on demand for labour, both produces a rapid and substantial redistribution of income directly of itself and also makes it possible to assist more generously those who are not, from misfortune temporary or permanent, sharing in the general advance. The history of our last fifteen years or so demonstrates this conclusively.
    • February 26, 1969, page 104.
  • There was a plea from honourable Members relating to the need for formal Gross National Product figures. Such figures are very inexact even in the most sophisticated countries I think they do not have a great deal of meaning, even as a basis of comparison between economies. That other countries make use of them is not, I think, necessarily a good reason to suppose that we need them. But, although I am not entirely clear what practical purpose they would serve in Hong Kong, I am sure they would be of interest. I suspect myself, however, that the need arises in other countries because high taxation and more or less detailed Government intervention in the economy have made it essential to be able to judge (or to hope to be able to judge) the effect of policies, and of changes in policies, on the economy. One of the honourable Members who spoke on this subject, said outright, as a confirmed planner, that he thought that they were desirable for the planning of our future economic policy. But we are in the happy position, happier at least for the Financial Secretary where the leverage exercised by Government on the economy is so small that it is not necessary, nor even of any particular value, to have these figures available for the formulation of policy. 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. I would myself deplore this.
    • March 25, 1970, page 495.
  • I cannot myself believe that anyone in this Chamber, and very few in the community as a whole, would wish to reverse all our previous policies and choose stabilization rather than growth; and it would certainly go contrary to the other views expressed by honourable Members about the need to promote the further growth of trade and industry. Not only would we be fore-going the creation of additional wealth and what this can bring, and has brought, in social advance, but we would also, I believe, permanently damage that climate of economic activity which has taken us so far and so fast. This would be particularly unwise, I suggest, in the face of those relatively darker clouds referred to by Your Excellency.
    • October 9, 1970, page 114.
  • I was particularly struck in this context by my honourable Friend, Mr K. S. Lo's concern at the decline in the enamelware industry as an example of the effect of lost advantages, as if this decline were a loss rather than a gain to the community. It has declined, I believe, because we have learned to use our resources of enterprise, capital and labour in other more profitable directions. That is progress. We would be in a sorry way if enamelware was still our fourth biggest industry.
    • October 9, 1970, page 114.
  • I must confess my distaste for any proposal to use public funds for the support of selected, and thereby, privileged, industrialists, the more particularly if this is to be based on bureaucratic views of what is good and what is bad by way of industrial development, but I have been studying the report referred to with some interest.
    • October 9, 1970, page 116.
  • I find odd the view that a Government institution is better placed to evaluate "the technical and financial viability" of a project than a commercial bank. It may well be that our banks are deficient in the kind of expertize required for assessing projects but then what we should be doing is encouraging banks to acquire such expertize or to make use of outside, commercial, expertize. I do not believe in any case that a Government machine can provide a reliable judgement on such matters, an opinion the banking members of the committee appear to have shared, for they have prudently refused to commit themselves to accepting its advice. I myself tend to mistrust the judgement of anyone not involved in the actual process of risktaking.
    • October 9, 1970, page 117.
  • I hold that two principles are important; first that there should be a steady expansion of public services, not an irregular one related to revenue accruing in any particular year; the second that taxes should be constant over long periods (provided, that is, that they are neither burdensome nor inequitable).
    • March 24, 1971, page 531.

Quotes about Cowperthwaite

  • I met Cowperthwaite in 1963 on my next visit to Hong Kong. I remember asking him about the paucity of statistics. He answered, "If I let them compute those statistics, they’ll want to use them for planning."
  • I have worked for many years with Sir John and I know only too well how wise he can be. I also know what a kind heart beats under his severe exterior―though he would never admit it. He has often, in my view, been unfairly criticized but, as Financial Secretary, he has done far more for Hong Kong than most people, and much more than most people realize.
    • Michael Arthur Clinton, Colonial Secretary of Hong Kong, Official Report of Proceedings of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, June 23, 1971, page 740.
  • Cowperthwaite had a clear desk with no files; he had plenty of time to think. Few were his equals in either intellect or initiative. He invariably had his way with the departments.
    • Value for Money, the Hong Kong Budgetary Process by Alvin Rabushka (1976), page 56.
  • Cowperthwaite was brilliant, well-trained in economics, suffered no fools, and was highly principled. He wouldn't last five minutes in a similar post in Britain, since he was no predisposed to compromise any of his principles - only the constitutional structure of Hong Kong allowed him that power.
    • Value for Money, the Hong Kong Budgetary Process by Alvin Rabushka (1976), page 57.
  • You always had the feeling that Cowperthwaite was looking over your left shoulder. You knew that he would ask at least five questions about any proposal that was submitted.
    • Value for Money, the Hong Kong Budgetary Process by Alvin Rabushka (1976), page 127.
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