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The Night-Watchman State’s Last Shift

HONG KONG – Too often, debate about the relationship between the state and the market casts them as opposing forces locked in a zero-sum struggle. But this simplistic approach quickly turns constructive discussion into a casualty of the ideological battle between advocates of state and market capitalism.

A more useful framework would view the state and the market as two sides of the same coin, bound together by the property-rights infrastructure (PRI). The state interacts with the market – the realm of private, voluntary exchange of property rights – in three main ways.

First, the state transacts with the private sector through taxation and expenditure. Second, it establishes and maintains the PRI, which includes all of the institutions needed to delineate, exchange, fine-tune, and protect (through enforcement of law and contracts) property rights. Among these institutions are the judiciary and arbitration panels, which function not only to adjudicate property-rights disputes, but also to address administrative abuses and disputes between the private and public sectors. Finally, the state competes with the private sector via state-owned enterprises and utilities.

Given that an effective PRI safeguards market order and stability, the market needs a strong state to manage it. This means that whether a government is “big” or “small” is less important than how well it manages the PRI – that is, whether the state is able to ensure high-quality market order.