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The Folly of Castro

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In any dictatorship, the biggest fool is the dictator.

It takes a prodigious amount of self-deception to believe you are running a country. That occurred to me as I heard about Fidel Castro’s preparations for the Pope’s visit to Cuba. In an interview on Cuban television, Castro said a couple of interesting things. First, he invited President Clinton to visit and persuade the Cuban people to give up socialism. Castro cannot know how funny that is. What would Bill Clinton, who proposed a federal takeover of medical care, say?

Castro also said he didn’t think the Pope’s visit would do anything to end socialism in Cuba. Here is where the Cuban ruler reveals the depths of his self-deception.

There is no socialism in Cuba.

Headline in theĀ Washington Post recently: “Cubans Scurry to Capitalize on Papal Visit, Cost of Hotels, Services Soars for Foreign Influx.” Translation: the Cuban people are entrepreneurs behaving as though they live in a capitalist country. More than 30 years of “socialism” has failed to propagandize or breed capitalism out of them. Could capitalism be the political economy of human nature? I think so, and we are darn lucky about that.

But that is not all. As I said, there is no socialism in Cuba. Socialism, as Marx meant it (and Castro claims to be a Marxist), meant not only state ownership of the means of production, but also the abolition of markets, money, and exchange. In Cuba the state may own the major industries but there are markets, money, and exchange. Castro may think the economy is planned by him and his cronies, but that is the biggest piece of self-deception of all.

Every day the Cuban people make countless decisions, transactions, and calculations about which Castro and his government will never know anything. Thanks to the black and gray markets, the Cubans most of the time are buying and selling and producing according to their own lights. The “planners” might issue decrees, but they know they will often be ignored. Even if they are obeyed, the “planners can’t know what the rippling unintended consequences will be. Human action is unpredictable that way.

Ask yourself: how can the small group of bureaucrats constituting the government of Cuba possibly direct the actions of more than 10 million people, each with his own preferences? There would have to be as many bureaucrats as citizens. But that wouldn’t help either, because the bureaucrats are already too busy wheeling and dealing. No doubt the government calls it “corruption.” But for such corruption the people would have all starved long ago.

The plan is a sham. If Castro has half a brain, he knows it.

I am not saying Cuba has a free market. I’m saying it has an unfree market. That is far different from socialism, which was to be the abolition of the market. Like the old Soviet Union from the 1920s onward, Cuba suffers from a government-saturated market. The state has clamped on so many idiotic regulations and taxes that the limits within which people can act are narrow. That is why Cuba is poor, lacking basic things we take for granted.

But within those constraints, the Cubans behave like entrepreneurs buying low, selling high, profiteering, speculating, seeking at every turn to bring about a better state of affairs for themselves and their families. Despite what they may say, in their conduct they are about as socialistic as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

If Cuba is a government-saturated market economy, that makes it more like the United States than we think. The American people’s economic activities are hemmed in by bureaucratic regulations and taxes only to a lesser extent than the Cubans’ are. The inane embargo on Cuban products is only the obvious example. President Clinton enthusiastically supports all those regulations and taxes. He wants even more of them.

That’s why the thought of him trying to persuade the Cuban people to give up socialism is so darn funny.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.