The great 20th century journalist, novelist, and travel writer Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998) was no stranger to war, hunger, and disease—all of which she insisted on seeing with her own two eyes. In 1937, she was in Madrid and witnessed the dark denouement of the Spanish Civil War. In 1938, she was in Prague as millions of displaced Czechs, who were escaping from the Sudetenland after the Munich Agreement, crowded the train stations in search of food and shelter. In 1945, she accompanied the U.S. Seventh Army as it liberated the Dachau concentration camp from the homicidal National Socialists.
Gellhorn was one of the world’s first female war correspondents and feminists, as well as a force of nature. Her articles are invariably powerful and insightful. Yet the book I always return to is her 1978 memoir, Travels with Myself and Another. In 1941, Gellhorn accompanied her new husband, Ernest Hemingway, on a trip to a war-torn Hong Kong. The city was on the front line, with the imperialist Japanese slowly gaining ground against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. Landing by plane in Hong Kong, she penned the following impressions of a starving city:
Shortly after Gellhorn and Hemingway left, the city surrendered to the Japanese. British rule returned after the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945. Two years later, a young Scottish civil servant named John Cowperthwaite arrived in the colony to oversee its economic development. Some 50 years later, I met Cowperthwaite in St Andrews, Scotland, where I was a student and he was enjoying his retirement. As he told me, “I came to Hong Kong and found the economy working just fine. So, I left it that way.”
Cowperthwaite talked to me about low taxes, a business-friendly regulatory environment, a lack of state subsidies, tariff-free trade relations with the rest of the world, and other policies he promoted during his tenure as colonial financial secretary. Of all the policies that we discussed, one stands out in my mind. I asked him to name the one reform that he was most proud of. “I abolished the collection of statistics,” he replied. Cowperthwaite believed that statistics are dangerous, because they enable social engineers of all stripes to justify state intervention in the economy.
At some point during our first conversation I managed to irk him by suggesting that he was chiefly known “for doing nothing.” In fact, he pointed out, keeping the British political busy-bodies from interfering in Hong Kong’s economic affairs took up a large portion of his time.
Today, Hong Kong is one of the most prosperous places on earth. While it has its share of problems—not least the Chinese government’s recent crackdown on freedom of speech—Hong Kong’s success has been astonishing. In 1950, an average citizen of the city earned 35 percent as much as an average citizen of Hong Kong’s colonial master, Great Britain. In 2015, an average citizen of Hong Kong earned 37 percent more than a typical Briton. The poverty that Gellhorn bemoaned is gone—thanks to economic freedom and peace.
This article first appeared in Reason.