Happy birthday, Leszek Balcerowicz!
By Alberto Mingardi
I’m in Warsaw for a conference that marks and celebrates the 70th birthday of Leszek Balcerowicz, a great economist and a great man. Balcerowicz was chairman of the National Bank of Poland and before that Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister. In an environment which can hardly be considered friendly to classical liberal ideas (see here a background paper on liberalism in Poland published by Econ Journal Watch), Balcerowicz founded political parties and think tanks (he is currently the chairman of FOR, a most dynamic Polish think tank) and his achievements were rightly acknowledged by the Cato Institute, which awarded him the Milton Friedman Prize in 2014.
Leszek is the single person who bears the most responsibility for the Polish transition to the market economy. The so-called Balcerowicz Plan, implemented in the early 1990s, was a set of reforms that radically liberalized the economy. They got rid of the government fixing the prices of consumer goods, opened the country to foreign investment, and changed the governance of state owned companies. Balcerowicz is a happy warrior, and he fought hard for privatization, fiscal discipline, sound money. He is a Konrad Adenauer of our times: the architect of the Polish economic miracle, one might say. On his experience in government and the many reforms he promoted, he has a chapter in “The Great Rebirth. Lessons from the Victory of Capitalism over Communism“, edited by Anders Aslund and Simeon Djankov.
In that paper, and in others too, Balcerowicz has tried to systematize the lessons of his experience in government. He has been a reformer in the tumultuous moments of the end of communism (“extraordinary politics”), but also later on, under more normalized democratic conditions (“normal politics”). He saw clearly how the circumstances influence what you can and you cannot achieve in politics, how to shape the degree of change people are willing to accept.
He has thought deeply about the issues of transition, which in another work, published by the IEA in London, characterizes as a set of novel circumstances:
It takes more time to privatise the bulk of a state-dominated economy than to organise free elections and to create at least some rudiments of political parties. Given the largely simultaneous beginnings of the political and economic transitions, this asymmetry in speed produces a historically new sequence: mass democracy (or at least political pluralism, that is, some degree of legal political competition) comes first and is followed by capitalism.
Balcerowicz never gives up. Now he is helping the Ukrainian government to put together some more sensible economic policies, and is a vocal critic of the current Polish government. He is that rare thing: a brilliant economist, a fierce and effective political fighter, and a scholar who never stops to reflect on the very processes he’s been part of. Many happy returns!