Shanker Singham of the Babson Global Institute (formerly a leading international trade lawyer and author of the most comprehensive one-volume work on the interplay between competition and international trade policy) has published a short article introducing the concept of “enterprise cities.” This article, which outlines an incentives-based, market-oriented approach to spurring economic development, is well worth reading. A short summary follows.
Singham points out that the transition away from socialist command-and-control economies, accompanied by international trade liberalization, too often failed to create competitive markets within developing countries. Anticompetitive market distortions imposed by government and generated by politically-connected domestic rent-seekers continue to thrive – measures such as entry barriers that favor entrenched incumbent firms, and other regulatory provisions that artificially favor specific powerful domestic business interests (“crony capitalists”). Such widespread distortions reduce competition and discourage inward investment, thereby retarding innovation and economic growth and reducing consumer welfare. Political influence exercised by the elite beneficiaries of the distortions may prevent legal reforms that would remove these regulatory obstacles to economic development. What, then, can be done to disturb this welfare-inimical state of affairs, when sweeping, nationwide legal reforms are politically impossible?
One incremental approach, advanced by Professor Paul Romer and others, is the establishment of “charter cities” – geographic zones within a country that operate under government-approved free market-oriented charters, rather than under restrictive national laws. Building on this concept, Babson Global Institute has established a “Competitiveness and Enterprise Development Project” (CEDP) designed to promote the notion of “Enterprise Cities” (ECs) – geographically demarcated zones of regulatory autonomy within countries, governed by a Board. ECs would be created through negotiations between a national government and a third party group, such as CEDP. The negotiations would establish “Regulatory Framework Agreements” embodying legal rules (implemented through statutory or constitutional amendments by the host country) that would apply solely within the EC. Although EC legal regimes would differ with respect to minor details (reflecting local differences that would affect negotiations), they would be consistent in stressing freedom of contract, flexible labor markets, and robust property rights, and in prohibiting special regulatory/legal favoritism (so as to avoid anticompetitive market distortions). Protecting foreign investment through third party arbitration and related guarantees would be key to garnering foreign investor interest in ECs. The goal would be to foster a business climate favorable to investment, job creation, innovation, and economic growth. The EC Board would ensure that agreed-to rules would be honored and enforced by EC-specific legal institutions, such as courts.
Because market-oriented EC rules will not affect market-distortive laws elsewhere within the host country, well-organized rent-seeking elites may not have as strong an incentive to oppose creating ECs. Indeed, to the extent that a share of EC revenues is transferred to the host country government (depending upon the nature of the EC’s charter), elites might directly benefit, using their political connections to share in the profits. In short, although setting up viable ECs is no easy matter, their establishment need not be politically unfeasible. Indeed, the continued success of Hong Kong as a free market island within China (Hong Kong places first in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom), operating under the Basic Law of Hong Kong, suggests the potential for ECs to thrive, despite having very different rules than the parent state’s legal regime. (Moreover, the success of Hong Kong may have proven contagious, as China is now promoting a new Shanghai Free Trade Zone thaw would compete with Hong Kong and Singapore.)
The CEDP is currently negotiating the establishment of ECs with a number of governments. As Singham explains, successful launch of an EC requires: (1) a committed developer; (2) land that can be used for a project; (3) a good external infrastructure connecting the EC with the rest of the country; and (4) “a government that recognizes the benefits to its reform agenda and to its own economic plan of such a designation of regulatory autonomy and is willing to confront its own challenges by thinking outside the box.” While the fourth prerequisite may be the most difficult to achieve, internal pressures for faster economic growth and increased investment may lead jurisdictions with burdensome regulatory regimes to consider ECs.
Furthermore, as Singham stresses, by promoting competition on the merits, free from favoritism, a successful EC could stimulate successful entrepreneurship. Scholarly work points to the importance of entrepreneurship to economic development.
Finally, the beneficial economic effects of ECs could give additional ammunition to national competition authorities as they advocate for less restrictive regulatory frameworks within their jurisdictions. It could thereby render more effective the efforts of the many new national competition authorities, whose success in enhancing competitive conditions within their jurisdictions has been limited at best.
ECs are no panacea – they will not directly affect restrictive national regulatory laws that benefit privileged special interests but harm the overall economy. However, to the extent they prove financial successes, over time they could play a crucial indirect role in enhancing competition, reducing inefficiency, and spurring economic growth within their host countries.