Did the Washington Consensus Fail?

November 6, 2002

Let me remind you of the ten reforms that I originally presented as a summary of what most people in Washington believed Latin America (not all countries) ought to be undertaking as of 1989 (not at all times):

1. Fiscal Discipline. This was in the context of a region where almost all the countries had run large deficits that led to balance of payments crises and high inflation that hit mainly the poor because the rich could park their money abroad.

2. Reordering Public Expenditure Priorities. This suggested switching expenditure in a pro-poor way, from things like indiscriminate subsidies to basic health and education.

3. Tax reform. Constructing a tax system that would combine a broad tax base with moderate marginal tax rates.

4. Liberalizing Interest Rates. In retrospect I wish I had formulated this in a broader way as financial liberalization, and stressed that views differed on how fast it should be achieved.

5. A Competitive Exchange Rate. I fear I indulged in wishful thinking in asserting that there was a consensus in favor of ensuring that the exchange rate would be competitive, which implies an intermediate regime; in fact Washington was already beginning to subscribe to the two-corner doctrine.

6. Trade Liberalization. I stated that there was a difference of view about how fast trade should be liberalized.

7. Liberalization of Inward Foreign Direct Investment. I specifically did not include comprehensive capital account liberalization, because that did not command a consensus in Washington.

8. Privatization. This was the one area in which what originated as a neoliberal idea had won broad acceptance. We have since been made very conscious that it matters a lot how privatization is done: it can be a highly corrupt process that transfers assets to a privileged elite for a fraction of their true value, but the evidence is that it brings benefits when done properly.

9. Deregulation. This focused specifically on easing barriers to entry and exit, not on abolishing regulations designed for safety or environmental reasons.

10. Property Rights. This was primarily about providing the informal sector with the ability to gain property rights at acceptable cost.

.. Some of the most vociferous of today’s critics of what they call the Washington Consensus, most prominently Joe Stiglitz (whose recent book, for example, specifically endorses gradual trade liberalization and carefully done privatization), do not object so much to the agenda laid out above as to the neoliberalism that they interpret the term as implying.

..  A decade ago many countries, especially in Latin America, were attempting to implement an agenda much closer to what I meant by the Washington Consensus than to what Joe Stiglitz means by it.

.. the Washington Consensus was excessively narrow. It consisted in accelerating growth without worsening income distribution, which was as much as I judged official Washington would subscribe to in 1989.1 If one regards poverty as an affront to human dignity, then one will care not simply about the level and growth of income but about its distribution as wel