Today, the final installment of Pilgrim's Egress (PEIII)
A Pilgrim's Egress (Part 3)
Confessions of a Conservative Forrest Gump
By Michael Munger
( © Michael Munger 2004; all rights reserved. No reproduction or quotation without express written authorization)
May 2001. I’m in the world’s oldest army truck, with three soft-looking 40-year-old soldiers. We are outside the main airport in Havana, Cuba, and I am in the country illegally. I didn’t sneak in; I flew in on a tiny commercial flight from Miami. But I didn’t have a valid visa, because apparently the gate agent in Miami (on whom more anon) had a twisted sense of humor. The guys in the truck couldn’t have been more bored. I couldn’t have been more scared. And I had never so vividly felt the absence of the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments. I promised my inner self that if I ever got out of this alive, I would stop making fun of the whackjobs in the ACLU. Heck, I would join the ACLU, and make my sons join as soon as they could have their sense of humor surgically removed.
But then I realized some money was missing. Ten dollars, American cash. It was missing from the pocket of each of the three soldiers. I took three tens out of my wallet and waved them like a fan. Then it turned out that a visa could in fact be obtained right at the airport. As I went back inside the airport, I noticed that the truck’s right front tire was flat. The bored soldiers had known the truck wasn’t headed anywhere. It was just business. No hard feelings, right?
It struck me: the Cuban system is the natural baseline, the way humans deal with each other if they are denied property and markets. Take away some peevish 18th century powderheads with a profound distrust of centralized power, and the U.S. would have the same system.
Remember the song, “I’d Love to Change the World”? It has a verse, “Tax the rich, feed the poor / Till there are no rich no more? (If you don’t remember, it is from Ten Years After’s 1971 album, “A Space in Time.”) I had heard the song maybe a hundred times before I realized that it perfectly summarizes the clotting of the mental arteries of the U.S. intelligentsia.
If we tax the rich and feed the poor, will there be a socialist nirvana? Like the song says, “Till there are no…RICH…no more.” That’s all the power to tax means. You can’t get rid of poor people by taxing the bejeezus out of anyone who is productive, energetic, or creative. But you can get rid of the rich. Cuba got rid of all its rich people by killing them, taxing them, or scaring them off to Miami.
People who are afraid of government in the U.S. often say, “Would you want restaurants run by the Post Office?” But that’s the wrong analogy. The Post Office sells a product, and could be efficient if it were privatized. What happened in Cuba was a hostile takeover by a truly abusive Third World system: the District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles.
If you want to experience Cuba right here in the States, go talk to a DC DMV employee. You will never encounter another human being who is quite that bored, or quite that angry. There are no rich people in line at the DMV. We all get treated the same. Like shit. So now you’ve been to Cuba. Welcome to the workers’ paradise.
Pilgrim’s Egress III: The Clotting of the American Mind
American education has lost sight of a simple fact. This lack in our lucubrations is discernable at every level from kindergarten to PhD programs (full circle, in other words). The simple fact is this: The U.S. is the engine of production, innovation, and scientific achievement for the whole world. For the most part, if this is acknowledged at all, it comes with an apology, like we should feel guilty. But it is hardly an accident. The U.S. is at the apex of the arc of human achievement because… well, because our system is better than the others.
Now, this may have involved luck, genius, or divine providence. But it’s still true. Most nations founded at the same time as the U.S., or later, are sitting in a truck with one flat tire, waiting for an American to take his wallet out and spread some tens around.
Some new nations, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, have been successful, of course. But their system is copied from ours, except for the random “u”s that preserve their distinctive colour as nations. The old nations, of course, either went the U.S. way out of good sense (England), or because they were lucky enough to be looking down U.S. gunbarrels when we stopped shooting (Japan, Germany).
People might argue that the “Asian tiger” nations are distinctive, and that their Confucian heritage explains their economic success. But then one would want to know why the ancient home of Confucian culture, China, has become the place where the DC DMV sends its managers to learn advanced techniques of humiliation and delay. No, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and now even Vietnam have been successful only because, and then only to the extent that, they have protected property rights, rewarded creativity, and encouraged effort.
The rest of the world is a freakin’ basket case. Nations with enormous natural wealth, large populations, and fantastic ports are stagnating. The sole occupation in much of Africa and Latin America is sitting in trucks with flat tires until all available wealth can be dissipated. This is how they achieve their perfectly just income distributions. Once everybody has nothing, all they have left to argue about is who gets to sit in the truck that week.
I had come to Cuba on an educational exchange program (I started to say “visa,” but I didn’t actually get one of those, as I will soon explain). My friend (I’ll call him “John”) and I were to give lectures at the Center for the Study of the United States, at the University of Havana. We had prepared stuff on the American Presidential election (all Cubans loved the American election of 2000, because they recognized the process). And we had worked up presentations on some of the sub-cabinet appointments for Bush’s government, particularly those affecting Latin America and Cuba in particular.
We were out of our league. The folks at the Center were bright, funny, and had direct outside internet access. That meant two things: first, these nice people were stone spooks, their “study” of the U.S. being simply the analytical arm of the Cuban intelligence service. Second, since they lived in a system where whim and bias were king, they knew an incredible amount about whim and bias. “John” and I wanted to talk about the American system; they wanted to know about the third deputy underover secretary of photocopiers, because they knew that he ran the weekly game of blind-man’s grab-ass in the basement of the State Department.
They ended up showing me web sites (U.S. government web sites, mind you) where you could track cabinet appointments and get detailed dossiers of potential appointees. It became clear that the information I had prepared was too basic for them. My color overheads really impressed them, though. Cuba has that technology, of course, but they cost about $1.50 per page to produce. Figuring this was a boondoggle, rather than a Duke business trip, I had gone to Kinko’s and had the copies made at my own expense in Raleigh.
These were professors and near the top of the heap in terms of income, at about $20 per month. The idea that someone would pay nearly $30 to make 18 overheads, on their own, was amazing to our hosts. I later found out that many of the professors/spooks also drove taxis on nights and weekends, since they could make a month’s salary in tips in a couple of days.
No Visa, No Mastercard
U.S. citizens must petititon for permission to go to Cuba, and the conditions are fairly stringent. You have to qualify for an educational, artistic, or other exchange program, and the purpose has to be documented. I had done all these things with the aid of the organization sponsoring the trip. But the U.S. government is still none too pleased about people going directly to Cuba, and so the airline arrangements are kind of sketchy.
In the Miami airport, I had asked four people, gotten three different sets of directions (all wrong), and failed to find the ticket counter for nearly two hours. When I did find it, I was told that I couldn’t possibly board the flight because the paperwork wouldn’t go through. I took my bag down there anyway, and talked to the gate agent. When I said I was there for the Cuba flight, he just laughed. “That flight leaves in 25 minutes. There is no way to get the visa forms filled out in that time.”
Having lived in Texas, I knew the Latino mind. Seeing the name tag on the gate guy, I wheedled. “Arturo, I am sorry for the trouble. It’s just that I thought that YOU might be able to do this. But, of course, now I see that it is beyond your power to get this done. I’ll just get a hotel, and come back tomorrow….”
Arturo’s breath hissed inward, and he glared at me. “YOU…WAIT….HERE!” he half shouted. Within seconds, he had the forms, and was barking orders in Spanish. Two other gate agents were recruited, and all four of us worked on forms, with me handing my passport and educational exchange visa application form around as needed. Since all the other passengers had been an hour early, as required by the visa system, the gate agents had nothing else to do anyway.
In twenty minutes, with about five minutes to spare, Arturo smiled and gestured at the seating area. “Dr. Munger, you are welcome to enter and sit down. Your seat number is 11A. Enjoy your flight.” Feeling that my place in the world hierarchy was secure, I stepped in and pretended to read a magazine for about thirty seconds before the flight was called, and we all got up to go out to the little “Miami Vice Drugrunner Special” prop plane that would take us 120 miles to Havana. As Arturo took my boarding pass at the gate, he winked.
I have a vision of the events at Arturo’s house that night. After dinner, he is helping his wife with the dishes. Arturo shakes his head, a little ruefully. “I did it again, Cipriana. I sent some jerk across without a visa.”
She turns on him. “Arturo! That’s so mean! You know they’ll hassle him! What if he reports you!”
Arturo laughs. “This guy was such a zangon, he’ll never even figure out what happened. He obviously thought he was playing me, and he probably thinks he has some special insight into the Latino mind. I wonder how he’s doing now?” Arturo looks slyly sideways at Cipriana.
She tries to look stern, but a snicker sneaks out of the side of her mouth. “SOLA VAYA!” she snorts. They both giggle, and then finish the dishes. A personal note, to Arturo: Good one, man. I deserved it.
Of course, while you need a visa to get into Cuba, you may as well leave your Mastercard on your dresser at home. Cubans take plastic, but they cannot accept American Express, or any other card issued by U.S. banks (that’s the U.S. law). So Americans have to take big plugs of cash. This is really not a problem, since Cuba (oddly) is one of the most dollarized economies in the world. The only things you can buy with pesos, from the “state” stores, are dead flies and petrified brick of soap powder.
We had lots of free time, and there are plenty of things to do in Havana. Hemingway’s house, touring the Morro castle, museums, parks...it’s a five-hundred-year-old city, with fifty years of zealotry slathered on top. We also spent a few hours each with two astonishingly interesting, sad, and hopeful people. I’ll describe them each briefly.
One of the first things “John” and I did was to go to the Museo de la Revolución, unsubtly sited in the palace of the former President, Fulgencio Batista. Our tour guide was a dedicated, attractive young government employee. I’ll call her “Antolina.” She loved the museum. She showed us the bullet holes near the stairway, where the Castro-aligned “students” had run up the stairs to try to kill Batista in 1957. Batista’s office was impressively ornate, and Antolina showed us the “secret” exit behind a curtain where the cowardly Batista had run to hide from the students’ righteous anger. The attack had failed, she said, but it had been a glorious union of the student intellectuals and the working class, the first instance of the union that still animates Cuba today, and so on (I’m skipping a lot).
Halfway through the tour, we went outside to look at some displays of military hardware. I asked Antolina a question, about the “students” and where they had come from. My question couldn’t have been more innocent. She immediately turned to me, and said, “Look, you two are professors. I’m an historian. Let’s drop that other stuff, because it’s just what we tell tourists.”
And then she told us her version of the real story. Remember, this is a woman who works in the Museo de la Revolución, as close as you can get to shrine in Cuba. She is a uniformed government employee. But she also cared about history. First and foremost, she cared about Cuba, and the truth. In that moment, she felt more of a connection with American scholars than she did with her putative colleagues at the Museo.
It turns out, at least according to Antolina, that the attack was botched from the outset. The two trucks, one with students and one with workers, were supposed to coordinate, and pull up to the back of the palace together. But the workers pulled up first, saw soldiers on the roof with rifles, and hauled ass, tires squealing. They drove off and hid behind a building, and then just bailed completely, leaving the truck and scattering (maybe it had flat tire?). The students pulled up about a minute later, and immediately became the focus of the soldiers on the roof, because of the all the tire-squealing and ass-hauling.
Several students were killed in the parking lot, but ten or so made it inside the building, brandishing rifles and yelling. They fired wildly, making the bullet holes by the stairs. As they went up the stairs, the soldiers were getting organized. The students just ran around bumping into each other until they were killed or captured. It is not clear they ever even found Batista’s office. And, if they had, it would hardly have mattered, because it is well established that Batista was upstairs in his bed that entire day, suffering from Montezuma’s revenge. In short, the workers ran off before the first shot, the students got lost, and Batista was out with a tummy ache.
John and I talked about this later, and agreed there were two amazing things about Antolina’s brief lecture in the park. First, through gestures and concise, idiomatic description (in what was, after all, her second language), she made us feel as if we had been there. Though the story was brief, she told it in a way that has stuck in my mind ever since. Second, this was a priestess, working in the temple of the Revolution. And she had abandoned the official version of the story as soon as we got outside.
This young woman should have been a real historian, doing real research, or curating some important museum collection. If she had been born in any other country, she would have been. Her self-confidence, in retrospect, was remarkable. When she found out we were professors, she decided we were all peers. Since she had been denied a chance at a PhD, or advanced study, this took more than a little chutzpah. But, as Muhammed Ali said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.” And that tour guide could have done anything she wanted to do. Except in Cuba, where she had to spend every afternoon telling lies to tourists for an American dollar.
The second person was a semi-private, but governmentapproved tour guide, who went with us by taxi to several sites and helped us to get through an army “roadblock” that had no apparent purpose. (All the tires on their trucks were functional; I checked.) He was friendly, witty, and very energetic. I’ll call him “Trino.”
At lunch, John and I asked Trino about himself. It turns out he had an advanced degree, the closest equivalent one could find to an MBA in Cuba. He wanted to start his own business, and had several plans about how to make it happen. We talked in general terms about what would happen when Castro finally passed on, the inevitable chaos of transition and the uncertainies afterward. I realized that Trino was furious at the system he had to live in. More than anyone else I met, this tour guide made me feel the tragedy of “modern” Cuba.
He had enormous plans, gigantic ambitions. But he had to go to Hemingway’s house, or some other attraction, every day and listen to tourists ask the same questions. (“Do they have those six-toed cats here?” “No, that was Hemingway’s other house, the one in Key West.” (PLEASE GOD, JUST SHOOT ME!)). His life was ticking by, and he couldn’t build anything, even though he lived in one of the largest, most attractive, least developed tourist destinations in world. There is prime real estate, right on the Malecon, one of the most beautiful ocean vistas anywhere, where the buildings are completely uninhabitable. Some visitors ask if these buildings were damaged in the Revolution. No; they have been damaged by it, a little at a time, until whole blocks are crying large concrete tears that just stay in the streets.
Back at the University, we asked our spook hosts why these properties weren’t being developed, or just torn down. They had earnestly explained that the process of investment in real estate was complicated by the facts that (1) one couldn’t obtain loans, because capital is barren and interest is theft, and (2) one can’t own property anyway, because it is owned by the state. I tried to argue that there was a big difference between complicated and asinine, but I didn’t get far.
But I had a job, and I was going back to my own country, where the Marxist theorists are in humanities departments where they can’t do much harm. In the U.S., only the agriculture, health care, and professor- making industries are completely socialized. Trino had to ride by these inert potential fountains of cash every day, and it was tragic. All you have to do is take ten 26-year-old financetrained entrepreneurs like Trino, open up a system for direct foreign investment, and endorse private property. Within a year, each of those Trinos would have been making $30k a month, the unemployment rate would be below 3%, and the Malecon would be beautiful even if you turned away from the ocean and looked at the houses.
The cost of the Revolution, in short, is not that Cuba has failed to build tourist hotels to attract libidinous German businessmen to wear out the local hookers. (Those guys are flying in already, and staying at horrible hotels, by the way.) The cost of the Revolution is that it tells people what they can want. Then, when the system can’t even deliver that, the system admonishes people to be happy with what they have. It is not an economic system, it’s a religion.
The trip ended much less eventfully than it had begun. The taxi that picked us up at the hotel was a massive Mercedes, maybe two years old, and plush. It was about a 25 minute ride (a little over 15 miles) to the airport, and we swooshed along through the Third World landscape feeling like capitalistimperialist pigs (that’s a good thing, by the way). Our driver was quiet, courteous, drove just over the speed limit, stayed off the horn, and in his lane. In short, this was the best taxi ride I have ever had, anywhere.
When we got to the airport, the driver said, “Four-tee.” John and I both heard it that way. We were delighted. This wasn’t a truck with a flat tire, this was a new Mercedes, and a veteran taxi driver was ripping us off by charging us an outrageously realistic world price for a realistically high quality service. The Cuba of the future, and we were the vanguard. As we tried to hand him a wad of fives and tens, the driver’s eyes widened, and he shook his head wearily. Idiot Americans. “No, no: Four-TEEN.”
I was tempted to tell the driver that he would still be better off with an old truck.
Hasta La Victoria Siempre
What set of ideas led to this mess? We could blame Marx or Lenin, who came up with the original recipe. Or we could castigate Castro, and heaven knows that there are thousands of deaths, and hundreds of thousands of ruined lives, that Castro should have to answer for. But one of the important thinkers of the Revolución in Cuba was its Christ-figure/ poster boy, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. You won’t see many images or statues of Castro (to his credit, he is personally modest, in dress and lifestyle), but you will see Che everywhere, almost as much as you’ll see images of Jose Martí (imagine the love child of George Washington and Martin Luther King).
Guevara was what Fidel was not: handsome, brilliant, educated, a medical doctor, an accomplished writer, and (in the last years of his brief life) openly anti-Soviet. (If you ever get a chance, read the book he co-authored, The Motorcycle Diaries, a terrific picaresque-tradition-meets-moped narrative, written with a genuine sympathy for the indigenous peoples of South America.) He was also capable of giving a public speech in less than five hours, a skill Castro has never developed, but is still trying to work on about twice a month.
For present purposes, though, there is one other important thing about “Che” (a nickname, after his habit of ending sentences with the Argentinian slang for “pal” or “buddy”). Che was a philosopher of the Revolution. To understand the “project” of revolution in Cuba, it is worth quoting Dr. Guevara at length. This is from his “Man and Socialism in Cuba” (1965). The letter distinguishes the role of the individual, and the collective, and the project of remaking citizens:
Society as a whole must become a huge school....We can see the new man who begins to emerge in this period of the building of socialism. His image is as yet unfinished; in fact it will never be finished, since the process advances parallel the development of new economic forms. Discounting those whose lack of education makes them tend toward the solitary road, towards the satisfaction of their ambitions, there are others who, even within this new picture of over-all advances, tend to march in isolation from the accompanying mass. What is more important is that people become more aware every day of the need to incorporate themselves into society and of their own importance as motors of that society.
They no longer march in complete solitude along lost roads towards far-off longings. They follow their vanguard, composed of the Party, of the most advanced workers, of the advanced men who move along bound to the masses and in close communion with them. The vanguards have their eyes on the futures and its recompenses, but the latter are not envisioned as something individual; the reward is the new society where human beings will have different characteristics: the society of communist man.
I really admire Guevara. He was an impossibly attractive combination of intellect, physical vigor, and sensitivity to suffering, besides looking really terrific in the beret. But he had this wrong, dead wrong. (And so does this freak show
) There are no “new economic forms.” And people pursuing “the satisfaction of their ambitions” are the real motors of a healthy society. People “incorporating themselves into society” are people descending into a living grave.
Cuba should be a wealthy, prosperous, educated country. It is truly beautiful, if you don’t look too closely at the collapsing buildings and chunks of concrete in the streets. The weather is great, and people run incredible “private” restaurants (paladares) out of their homes. For $18 or less, you’ll get everything from appetizers to cigars, and you’ll never taste better camarones al mojo de ajo. The cars, rebuilt coches de Bondo from the 1950’s, still run, even though not one part of the engine, brakes, or steering is original. In short, in every situation or activity where the Cuban people have been allowed to “tend toward the solitary road,” they rock.
The parts of Cuba that suck are…well, everything else. The government restaurants are grossly overpriced, and the service is decidedly indifferent. The government construction projects consist of groups of men arriving to work about 10 a.m., staring at the walls for a while, having some lunch in the shade, and then calling it a day. Their pay for this charade is about right, less than $10 per month. But they are clearly missing their true calling. These men are ideally suited to work on U.S. DOT road projects, and earn $10 per hour.
Now, on its face, this is not a problem. Collectivist activities everywhere are maddening wastes of time and money. I had no trouble recognizing the Department of Motor Vehicles service ethic, or the Department of Transportation work ethic, from my own experience here in the U.S. The difference is that in Cuba the collectivist part is the stuff Castro and his co-religionists are proud of. Just another illustration of von Mises’ fundamental insight: “Most men endure the sacrifice of their intellect more easily than the sacrifice of their daydreams. They cannot bear that their utopias should run aground on the unalterable necessities of human existence. What they yearn for is another reality different from the one given in this world.”
The Project of Moral Progress: Sirens on the Rocks
The idea of moral progress is irresistible, crack cocaine for the intellectual. Various projects, from the reform of institutions to reforming the minds of citizens, are constantly hatched and chattered about. In spite of the disasters that always result (Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” Pol Pot’s reeducation camps, and Hillary Clinton’s health care “reforms”), educated people are always convinced that things should be, and could be, better.
Is there an evolution in human society toward the good, or at least the better? If so, is it an evolution in institutions and technology, or an evolution in human morality and consciousness? And is the evolution a consequence of the spontaneous emergence and acceptance of new ideas, or must we be forced to be free?
In my presidential address to the Public Choice Society in 1997, I made a large claim: The fundamental human problem is the design, or maintenance, of institutions that make self-interested individual action not inconsistent with the welfare of the larger society.
If one accepts this claim, then there are two ways to conceive of the “project” of human progress. They are fundamentally different, in terms of their conceptions of the place of humans in society, and of human nature itself.
Project 1: Mechanism Design—Take self-interest as given, with “interests” themselves being exogenous. Then the task is to design, or foster, mechanisms (with markets being one archetype) where the collective consequences of individual self-interest are not harmful. Under some circumstances, institutions may emerge (or be created) that make everyone better off. Is this “led by an invisible hand” model possible for government institutions? Of course. As James Madison put it, in Federalist 51:
[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
Project 2: Moral Perfectability—In the progressive society, laws, institutions, and morals cannot be allowed to be external constraints. We must inscribe the laws not in books, but on the human heart. I am paraphrasing from what Christians call the “New Testament” (“I will put my laws in their hearts; I shall inscribe them on their minds” [Hebrews 8:10]), but the meaning attached to the words is purely modern.
For example, consider the following multiple choice question. Here is a text. Now, identify the writer:
It seems as if Marxism, once all the rage, is currently not so much in fashion. To counter these tendencies, we must strengthen our ideological and political work. Both students and intellectuals should study hard. In addition to the study of their specialized subjects, they must make progress ideologically and politically, which means they should study Marxism, current events and politics. Not to have a correct political orientation is like not having a soul....All departments and organizations should shoulder their responsibilities for ideological and political work. This applies...especially to heads of educational institutions and teachers. Our educational policy must enable everyone who receives an education to develop morally, intellectually and physically and [...develop both a ...] socialist consciousness and culture. (emphasis added).
A. Frederic Jameson
B. The entire discipline of Cultural Anthropology
C. Karl Marx
D. Mao Tse-tung
E. Friedrich August von Hayek
The only incorrect answer is “E”; all the other answers are correct. The best answers are “A” or “D”, though it is important to understand that Mao’s English prose was more accessible. (The actual quote is from Mao’s “On the Correct Handling of C o n t r a d i c t i o n s Among the People”, by the way.)
The nature of the secular religion being foisted on all of us could hardly be more explicit. The development of morality, in fact the very possession of a soul, is based on the compulsory inculcation of collective values and the acceptance of reciprocal obligations. These constraints cannot be external, for those who believe in the moral perfectability of mankind. They are learned, the product not just of education but an encompassing vision of the nature of education as a motor for social evolution. What is necessary is that the institutions of society be organized and focused on the development of the “new man.”
In Cuba, the government has tried for 45 years to force everyone to be new men and women, and punished those who tried to act otherwise. People are told from birth that they should not seek material rewards, and that their reward will come from the intrinsic value of right action, in belonging to (literally, being the property of) the community.
Still, it hasn’t taken hold. The problem for Castro is not that the U.S. casts its shadow over his economy, making it falter and break down. The faltering and breakdowns are the only things the Castro economy can accomplish. The problem for Castro, and for the moral perfectability project, is that they really want humans to be otherwise; not better—different. They want humans to want what the intellectuals think they should want. All the zeal, creativity, and coercive power of the collectivist state are focused on making those citizens want the “right” thing.
And there is the real triumph of the human spirit: an adamantine cussedness, an obdurate refusal to be “reeducated,” or remade in the image of the new man. What I saw in Cuba was an unwillingness to subordinate the self to a thousandheaded über-being, composed solely of eyes, mouths, and assholes. Cubans have dreams, they have their own lives, and they are just biding their time until they can escape the trap.
A Box of Chocolates
Forest Gump kept saying that “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” This did not displease him, however, because he had a naïve, but ultimately vindicated, conception of life: Even though there is nobody in charge, and the world is not under someone’s control, there are forces that drive us toward the good. This is a fundamentally libertarian perspective, and it drives people on the left, and for that matter on the right, bonkers.
There are certain features of systems that work: effort, creativity, and merit are rewarded. People are allowed, even encouraged, to find the niche that suits them best, rather than being directed by some hive-mind. And the laws and institutions of government countenance adaptable, highly plastic relations among citizens, not restricting their ability to associate politically, economically, or spiritually.
The reason that such systems are fragile, and don’t survive very well, is that the temptation to make things better is simply irresistible. The human mind is vain and deceitful, as Hobbes told us:
But without steadiness, and direction to some end, great fancy is one kind of madness; such as they have that, entering into any discourse, are snatched from their purpose by everything that comes in their thought, into so many and so long digressions and parentheses, that they utterly lose themselves: which kind of folly I know no particular name for: but the cause of it is sometimes want of experience; whereby that seemeth to a man new and rare which doth not so to others: sometimes pusillanimity; by which that seems great to him which other men think a trifle: and whatsoever is new, or great, and therefore thought fit to be told, withdraws a man by degrees from the intended way of his discourse. (Leviathan, Chapter VIII)
Hobbes didn’t know any “particular name” for this failing, but it has since been named. It is the conceit of social engineering that dominates the academic establishment in the United States. This conceit, apparently irresistible even to first rate minds, is this: Something must be done to improve the system. We should constantly look for ways to direct and improve that which is destroyed by attempts at direction or improvement. Che called these will-o-the-wisps “new economic forms,” but fundamentally failed to recognize the fact that the reforms he advocated would tranform Cuba from a thriving developed nation into an economic mausoleum. The kind of new economic forms that work must be the product of individually-motivated private innovation, not collectivist direction.
I want to thank NEW SENSE, and in particular Madison Kitchens, for having given me this extended forum for the presentation of these recollections, provocations, and outrages. For those of you who have been kind, interested, or just angry enough to read through all three of these essays: Thanks to you, too. Feel free to email me at email@example.com if you have comments, or just want to point out my errors of thought or expression. I have had a great time.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara, 1965, “Man and Socialism in Cuba,” Letter from Major Ernesto Che Guevara to Carlos Quijano, editor of the Montevideo weekly magazine Marcha.
The translation here is by Brian Basgan, found A Gringa’s Search for Pesos in Cuba
UPDATE: Humberto Fontova, on Cuba and the Dem's pet hippo