The Australian case for nationalisation

by John Quiggin on January 25, 2009

The speed with which bank nationalisation has risen to the top of the policy agenda has found the economics profession largely unprepared. The literature on property rights that developed in the 1970s produced a range of arguments in favour of private as opposed to public ownership which had at least some influence on the widespread adoption of privatisation policies in the 1980s and 1990s. Although subsequent theoretical and empirical developments, such as the discovery of the equity premium puzzle and developments in agency theory cast doubt on the claims of the original literature, the profession as a whole had moved on, and showed little interest in revisiting the issues. The situation was a bit different in Australia.

As Joshua Gans observes,

the main contributions have come from Australian economists who did this research a decade ago only to be told by international journals that as privatisation had occurred everywhere by then, no one was interested in the conditions under which government ownership would be preferable.

and notes “I guess that view is wrong.” Unsurprisingly, I was among those who tried, with limited success, to interest the international profession in this question.

As Joshua’s post suggests, there’s a feeling here that Australia tends to get the short end of the stick in the economics profession. Australia has made some notable contributions to economic thought, with relatively limited recognition. Examples include the work of Trevor Swan (arguably the most significant economist never to win a Nobel prize), Colin Clark on national accounting, and before that the “Australian case for protection” developed by the Brigden Commission and later formalised as the Stolper-Samuelson theorem. In the 1970s, the “Gregory thesis” was an independent analysis of what became known internationally as “Dutch disease”. As these examples suggest, we tend to suffer a bit from being on the far side of the planet from the main centres of activity in the profession.

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