Defending Capitalism against Ayn Rand

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The titles that Ayn Rand assigned to the three parts of Atlas Shrugged proclaim her insistence that logical contradictions cannot exist in reality. By contrast, the title of the magnum opus of the ultimate charlatan in Atlas Shrugged, Simon Pritchett, is The Metaphysical Contradictions of the Universe. Francisco d’Anconia and Hugh Akston explain to Dagny Taggart that whenever someone thinks he has encountered a contradiction, he must check his premises, and he will find that one of them is wrong (I.9, 7, 10).1

In this essay, I will follow d’Anconia’s and Akston’s advice. I will show that a fundamental contradiction pervades Atlas Shrugged because Rand failed to check her premises. She thought that the heroes she created were exemplars of pure, uncorrupted capitalism. In fact, the heroes she created in Atlas Shrugged came from her sense of life, which was not only un-capitalist but anti-capitalist. I will also show that this contradiction is extremely fortunate because it illuminates why capitalism is the most efficient and humane economic system ever implemented.

Rand often emphasized the importance of a person’s “sense of life” and of art as its expression (e.g., Rand 1975: 31, 33, 44). She defined her sense of life and its artistic expression most clearly in an essay she wrote on Victor Hugo (1975: 153–61). In it she said, “Victor Hugo is the greatest novelist in world literature” because his characters are “a race of giants,” who are not concerned with “penny ante.” “‘Grandeur’ is the one word that names the leitmotif . . . of all of Hugo’s novels — and of his sense of life.”

The heroes Rand created in Atlas Shrugged came from her sense of life, which was not only un-capitalist but anti-capitalist.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand created heroes who embodied her sense of life and described how such heroes would fulfill their heroic natures if they engaged in economic activities. She thought that the sum of their economic activities and interactions provides a template of what laissez-faire capitalism would be like. She was wrong. When the heroes who embody her sense of life engage in economic activities, they function like Communist administrators, not capitalist businessmen.2

To paraphrase Rand, “Grandeur is the one word that names” the sense of life of Communist economies. They had no concern with anything “penny ante.” In the 1980s, when the economy of the Soviet Union was disintegrating, it was producing between 1.5 and two times more steel and cement than the United States and generating more electricity; it also had 2.5 times more machine tools. However, buttons, clothespins, babies’ pacifiers, and thermometers were always extremely difficult to find in the Soviet Union (Shmelev and Popov 1989: 82, 132, 144). Toilet paper and toilet seats were such rare and precious commodities that when McDonald’s opened a restaurant in Moscow, in 1990, its employees had to guard its restrooms to prevent customers stealing toilet paper and toilet seats (Goldman 1991: 166). The Soviet Union’s heroic economy also did not provide contraceptives or a single practical guide to contraception. As a result, Soviet women averaged at least four legal abortions during their lives; and the average was higher in the non-Muslim regions of the Soviet Union. In addition, large numbers of illegal abortions were performed. Anesthetics could be obtained only by a large bribe (Feshbach and Friendly 1992: 208–9).

In Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, the villain, Ellsworth Toohey, completely destroys Catherine Halsey’s soul, and the visible sign of her corruption is that her mouth has adapted to giving orders, “not big orders or cruel orders; just mean little ones — about plumbing and disinfectants” (IV.10). Toohey has turned her into the opposite of a Communist. The Communists gave big, cruel orders and had no concern with mean little considerations. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged are heroic because, like Communist bureaucrats, they produce or maintain impressive products, not mean little ones. It would be unimaginable for a Rand hero to be a manufacturer of “penny ante” products, such as disposable baby diapers, menstrual tampons, or dependable contraceptives. But these distinctively 20th-century inventions improved the quality of life immeasurably by freeing people from preoccupation with brute, animal existence.

Most services would be included among “mean little” occupations. The Communists’ heroic obsession with production caused them to ignore services, which, with a few exceptions, they did not even include in their gross domestic product statistics. In fact, Marxists always used the term “the means of production” as a synonym for “the economy.” In modern capitalist countries, most businesspeople provide services. With one exception that I will discuss below, the only service that a hero in Atlas Shrugged provides is running railroads. This is clearly not a “mean little” occupation, and it was one of the few services that the Soviet Union included in its gross domestic product statistics (weight of freight times kilometers carried).

Moreover, Rand ignored all services in her representation of history (1963: 10–57) as a battle between Attila and the Witch Doctor and their antithesis, the Producer. Indeed, her practice of using “industrialist” as a synonym for businessperson excludes businesspeople who produce “penny ante” products, along with those who provide services. In his long speech in Atlas Shrugged, John Galt (i.e., Ayn Rand) says, “Productiveness is your acceptance of morality . . . productive work is the process by which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of . . .  shaping matter to fit one’s purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values;” and, “the industrialists, the conquerors of matter” “have produced all the wonders of humanity’s brief summer” (III.7).

It would be unimaginable for a Rand hero to be a manufacturer of disposable diapers, tampons, or dependable contraceptives.

It is true that the great philosopher Hugh Akston owns a diner and cooks its food, which he does with extraordinary skill, making “the best-cooked food she [Dagny] had ever tasted” (I.10). However, Rand does not let this fact affect her conceptualization of productive work when Galt tells Dagny, “We take nothing but the lowliest jobs and we produce by the effort of our muscles” (III.1).3

In her short story “The Simplest Thing in the World” (1975: 173-85), Rand depicts a writer of fiction who cannot make a living because he has the same sense of life as Rand. The writer decides he has to create the type of story that will sell: “a simple, human story,” which consists of “lousy bromides.” “It mustn’t have any meaning,” and its characters must be petty because “[s]mall people are safe.” However, he is incapable of writing such a story. Every time he tries, his sense of life thwarts his conscious efforts, and he starts composing a story about heroes. The reason, as Rand explains in her introduction, is that his “sense of life directs . . . and controls his creative imagination.” To exemplify this fact, he begins to write “a story about a middle-aged millionaire who tries to seduce a poor young working girl.” He is “a big tycoon who owns a whole slew of five-and tens [i.e., discount stores].” But the author cannot write this story. As he develops the story in his mind, his sense of life makes him forget about the girl and transform the villain into a hero. As part of the transformation, he says to himself, “to hell with the five-and-ten!” The hero now builds ships because he is driven by “a great devotion to a goal.” He is motivated by “a great driving energy . . . the principle of creation itself. It’s what makes everything in the world. Dams and skyscrapers and transatlantic cables.” “[H]e wants to work — not to make money, just to work, just to fight” (emphasis added). So, an author with Ayn Rand’s sense of life could not make the hero of his works a retailer, no matter how successful he might be; not even Sam Walton, who founded Walmart and built it into the company with the greatest revenue of any company in the world.

Because the Soviets had the same sense of life as the author in this short story (i.e., the same as Rand), they were extremely proud of the enormous hydroelectric dams they built, and their retailing was horribly inefficient. In the Soviet Union, people had to wait in long lines for any purchase. If someone had time to spare, he would wait in a line to buy something he did not need, in order to barter it with someone who had waited in another line to buy something else. When McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Moscow, it set all records for number of customers: 40,000 to 50,000 a day, even though its food cost twice as much as the food in state-run cafeterias. It had twenty-seven cash registers. In Communist countries, the length of a line of customers showed how valuable the merchandise was at the end of that line. So, McDonald’s had to have ushers to tell customers not to go to the longest line (Goldman 1991: 166–7; Blackman 1990).

The opening of this first McDonald’s — an event that, as much as any other, marked the end of Communism — illustrates another serious defect in Communist-Objectivist ideals. A small notice in a Soviet newspaper drew 27,000 applicants for jobs as counter clerks, even though the anticipated salary was only average by Soviet standards. Those who were chosen had to be trained to smile at customers and speak politely to them. Their training was so successful that customers could not believe that the clerks were Soviet-raised Russians (Blackman 1990; Goldman 1991: 166–7).

An author with Ayn Rand’s sense of life could not make the hero of his works a retailer, no matter how successful he might be.

Rand used “grocery clerk” to symbolize the antithesis of her ideal (1964: viii; 1975: 84). In her first novel, We the Living, when the heroine, Kira, sees her future lover Leo for the first time,she observes that “[h]is mouth . . . was that of an ancient chieftain who could order men to die, and his eyes were such as could watch it.” However, Leo says to Kira, with bitter humor, “I’m nothing like what you think I am. I’ve always wanted to be a Soviet clerk who sells soap and smiles at customers” (I.4). Again, Rand reversed Communism and capitalism. Men who could order others to die and watch their death calmly characterized Communism. Smiling clerks, who sell unimpressive products, characterize capitalism.

When Nathaniel Branden was the official Objectivist expert on psychology, he wrote, “[P]roductive work is the process through which a man achieves that sense of control over his life which is the precondition of his being able fully to enjoy the other values possible to him … [P]roductive . . . achievements lead to pride” (“Self-Esteem: Part IV,”The Objectivist, June 1967). Branden, as he himself later realized, was exaggerating. But he was exaggerating a truth. A feeling of control over one’s life and pride in productive achievements are certainly wonderful feelings. They can derive directly from the type of work done by Communist administrators and the heroes of Rand’s novels, especially if, like Howard Roark, they have an uncapitalist indifference to money and accept only those projects that appeal to them. However, a feeling of control over one’s life and pride in achievements do not follow directly from the type of work that most people in a capitalist society do: salesmen, accountants, insurance brokers, bank clerks, and manufacturers of “penny ante” products, like clothespins and underpants.

Nearly all readers of Rand’s novels, even those who disagree with her philosophy, recognize that she was a brilliant novelist. But not even her brilliance as a novelist could have made a gripping, inspirational novel about the work that is done in distinctively capitalist occupations, occupations that do not exist in Communist countries, such as advertising or being a real estate agent. In fact, the first jobs of the odious Wesley Mouch were in advertising (Atlas II.6).

Let us consider briefly the novelist whom Rand (1975: 119) regarded as the best of the naturalists, Sinclair Lewis. When Lewis wanted to write novels about admirable protagonists, he made them a dedicated research scientist (Martin Arrowsmith) and the president of a car company (Sam Dodsworth), who began his career as assistant manager of production. When Lewis wanted a pathetic protagonist, he made him a real estate agent (George Babbitt). Babbitt, like Dodsworth, is successful at his work. But Lewis says in the first chapter that Babbitt “made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry;” and he “detested the grind of the real estate business, and disliked his family, and disliked himself for disliking them.”

The discussion so far illuminates a crucial benefit of the love of money. It entices people into occupations that they may not find interesting or inspiring, but are socially necessary; and it exerts constant pressure on business owners to provide what the public wants, not what they enjoy doing.

In all of Rand’s novels, only one business owner completely embodies the capitalist ethos. That is the press tycoon Gail Wynand, in The Fountainhead, who becomes fabulously rich through selfless service to the public, by providing it with what it wants: a lowbrow, sentimental, lurid newspaper. As he says (IV.11), he has led a life of “[s]elflessness in the absolute sense.” He “erased [his] ego out of existence” by following the principle, “Give the greatest pleasure to the greatest number.” However, according to Rand, Wynand is guilty of the most horrible sin in her moral universe: betraying himself.

Men who could order others to die and watch their death calmly characterized Communism. Smiling clerks, who sell unimpressive products, characterize capitalism.

Wynand’s opposite is Nathaniel Taggart, in Atlas Shrugged, who is supposed to be the archetypal capitalist. As Dagny recalls (I.8), “He said that he envied only one of his competitors, the one who said, ‘The public be damned!’” Nothing could be more antithetical to the motivation of a successful business owner in a capitalist society. This is the ethos of the head of a production unit in a Communist economy, who derives exhilaration and pride from productive achievement without regard to providing the public with what it wants.

Rand’s story “The Simplest Thing in the World” is an excellent illustration of this point. It assumes that an author with Rand’s sense of life is compelled to create a protagonist who does not work for money and therefore chooses to build ships instead of discount stores. This contrast is factually accurate. Someone motivated by money would not consider shipbuilding as a business career since, in economically advanced countries, shipbuilders can stay in business only by means of tariff protection or government subsidies or both. But he would certainly consider the business of discount stores, since they have proved to be the most profitable (i.e., socially useful) branch of retailing.

The economic role of money in constantly driving economic participants to provide the public with what it wants is related to an admirable moral attribute of the free market. It is completely democratic and non-coercive; no one can interfere with other people spending their money on what they want. In her essay “What Is Capitalism?” (1967: 17, 20) Rand showed that she was fully aware of this fundamental attribute of capitalism (the italics are Rand’s):

[T]he works of Victor Hugo are objectively of immeasurably greater value than true-confession magazines. But if a given man’s intellectual potential can barely manage to enjoy true confessions, there is no reason why his meager earnings, the product of his effort, should be spent on books he cannot read.

The tribal mentalities attack this principle . . . by a question such as: “Why should Elvis Presley make more money than Einstein?” The answer is: Because men work in order to support and enjoy their own lives — and if many men find value in Elvis Presley, they are entitled to spend their money on their own pleasure.

It is the Gail Wynands who provide true-confessions magazines and Elvis Presley CDs.

At this point, many readers will object that Ayn Rand appreciated the value of money. She ended Atlas Shrugged with its hero tracing the sign of the dollar in space, made a gold dollar sign Atlantis’ “coat of arms, its trademark, its beacon” (III.1), and herself often wore a gold dollar sign pinned to her dress.

Yet in The Fountainhead, Toohey asks Peter Keating about Roark (II. 4), “Does he like money;” and Keating replies No. But long before that, the reader has learned that Roark’s abnormal indifference to money is one of the essential characteristics that make him the hero of this novel. Indeed, in “The Simplest Thing in the World,” Rand assumed that an author with her sense of life must write only about heroes who do not care about money.

Rand assumed that an author with her sense of life must write only about heroes who do not care about money.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand sometimes has her heroes claim that their goal is to make money. At the opening of the John Galt Line, which is by far the greatest achievement of both Dagny and Hank Rearden (I.8), a reporter asks Dagny her “motive in building that Line.” She answers, “the profit which I expect to make.” Another reporter cautions her, “That’s the wrong thing to say.” But she repeats it. Yet before her trip begins, she looks at the crowd that has gathered and notices that they are there, not because these people expect to make a profit, but “because the sight of an achievement was the greatest gift a human being could offer to others.” The description of the ride on the John Galt Line is the most exhilarating fiction writing I can recall reading; and I have read a great deal of narrative fiction, in ancient Greek, Latin, English, and French. For Dagny, “It was the greatest sensation of existence; not to trust, but to know.” “She felt the sweep of an emotion which she could not contain, as of something bursting upward.” And what about the engine drivers? Every one of them who was available volunteered to drive the train despite persistent warnings of danger. Surely, they were not motivated by money.

At least in their economic interactions, money should be the primary consideration of the heroes of a novel that ends with the dollar sign traced in the air. In Part I, Chapter 1, Dagny’s parasitical brother James says to her, “I don’t like Hank Rearden.” Dagny replies, “I do. But what does that matter, one way or another? We need rails and he is the only one who can give them to us.” James Taggart, typically of him, replies, “You have no sense of the human element at all.” This conversation crystallizes capitalist and uncapitalist mentalities.

Nevertheless, the economic decisions of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged are constantly motivated by the human element. That is true even of the one major character in Atlas Shrugged who is a pure capitalist, Midas Mulligan. He says he joined the strike because of a vision, in which he “saw the bright face and the eyes of young Rearden . . . lying at the foot of an altar . . . and what stood on that altar was Lee Hunsacker, with the mucus-filled eyes” (III.1). In Part II, Chapter 3, Francisco asks Rearden: did you want the rail you made for the John Galt Line used by your equals, like Ellis Wyatt, and by men such as Eddie Willers, who do not match your ability but who “equal your moral integrity” and “riding on your rail — give a moment’s silent thanks”? Rearden answers Yes. Francisco then asks, “Did you want to see it used by whining rotters?” Rearden answers, “I’d blast that rail first.” Francisco then explains that by "whining rotter" he means “any man who proclaims his right to a single penny of another man’s effort.” But no economy, whether socialist or capitalist, could function for one day if producers acted in this way. In Part II, Chapter 10, Dagny says that Nathaniel Taggart, supposedly the archetypical capitalist, “couldn’t have worked with people like these passengers. He couldn’t have run trains for them.” But no one running a train line, even in a socialist economy, could possibly consider the moral worth of its passengers, or any consideration besides their paying for the ride.

No one running a train line, even in a socialist economy, could possibly consider the moral worth of its passengers, or any consideration besides their paying for the ride.

I will conclude with the most frequently quoted explanation of why the market is the most effective means of providing people with what they want. It is by Adam Smith, in Book I, Chapter II of The Wealth of Nations: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own interest. We address ourselves . . . to their self-love.” Butchers, brewers, and bakers had a very low priority in Communist countries. When McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Moscow, it had to train its own butchers (Goldman 1991: 166). It is also unimaginable for an Ayn Rand hero to be a butcher, brewer, or baker. The self-interest and self-love that induces people to become butchers, brewers, and bakers and to perform those jobs well is totally different from the heroic self-love of Rand’s heroes. It is an unheroic desire to support themselves and their families in comfort and security.

In her essay “What Is Capitalism?” Ayn Rand showed that she understood as well as Smith why love of money is wonderfully socially beneficial. In her fiction, however, her anti-capitalist sense of life obliterated that knowledge.

***

Footnotes
1. I cite passages in Rand’s novels by the part of the novel in which they occur and the chapter in that part. I do not cite page numbers because there are many editions, and each has different pagination from the others.
2. I write “Communist” with a capital “C” to indicate a member of a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party. Many people have championed a communist society (with a small “c”), beginning with the first two extant projections of an ideal society: Plato’s Republic and Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, both from the 4th century BC.
3. Several of the heroes provide services while they are in Galt’s Gulch. But these jobs are merely stopgaps until they return to the world and use their talents again in their real work.

Bibliography
Blackman, Ann 1990: “Moscow’s Big Mak Attack.” Time (February 5).
Feshbach, Murray and Friendly, Alfred Jr. 1992: Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature under Siege. London: Aurum Press.
Goldman, Marshall 1991: What Went Wrong with Perestroika. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Rand, Ayn 1963: For the New Intellectual. New York: Signet.
Rand, Ayn 1964: The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Signet.
Rand, Ayn 1967: Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Signet.
Rand, Ayn 1975: The Romantic Manifesto, revised edition. New York: Signet.
Shmelev, Nikolai and Popov, Vladimir 1989: The Turning Point: Revitalizing the Soviet Economy, translated by Michele A. Berdy. New York: Doubleday.


Editor's Note: This article is part of a much longer monograph with the same title. It can be obtained from the author at stevenfarron@gmail.com.



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The Metamorphosis

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When the Cuban people awoke last April 2011, they did not find themselves transformed into giant insects. That change had already occurred. Over the course of the previous 50 years, Fidel Castro had transformed the island into one giant beehive or ant colony laboring single-mindedly for his vision of a Caribbean utopia. What they did wake up to find was something entirely novel: a vibrant options market in 1950s vintage Detroit automotive classics.

In “Cuba: Change We Can Count On?” (Liberty, December 2010), I reported the passage of enabling legislation by the Cuban government to guide the Congress of the Communist Party in implementing far-reaching reforms to the economy. Though the fine print of implementation had yet to be worked out, a big change was decreed. It included the legalization of self-employment in ”dozens” of areas, the privatization of many small state-owned businesses as cooperatives, and the establishment of limited property rights in real estate and some bits of movable property such as cars, boats, and appliances, many of which can now be bought and sold.

The impetus for all this hope and change was money. Cuba’s economic and fiscal health was dire. The reforms hoped to eliminate one-fifth of the government work force (thereby cutting expenditures); incentivize former government employees into joining taxable petit-capitalist enterprises (thereby raising revenue); and — along with liberalized foreign investment reforms — stimulate the economy and improve Cuba’s fiscal prospects.

In April 2011 the details of the new legislation were announced. In a recent paper entitled “Economic Impact of New Employment, Tax and Financial Policies in Cuba,” presented at the XXI Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (Miami, August 2011), Luis R. Luis, former director, Latin America Department, of the Institute of International Finance and chief economist at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, applied macroeconomic analysis and a crystal ball to predict the effects of the reforms.

To a populace that has never paid taxes, much less dealt with the fine points of business expense deductions and tax accounting protocols, the entireexperience must have been far from “liberalizing.”

Given the market sophistication of the Congress of the Cuban Communist Party — akin to that of the Creation Science Institute, sequencing the malaria genome — the reforms are still a work in progress. They aim primarily at improving state finances, but the use of price controls, size limits on firms, confiscatory tax rates, complicated monthly payment requirements, and petty regulatory activity “could result,” as Luis drily observes, “in even larger evasion than is usual in developing countries by single proprietorships and the self-employed, [and] will also result in many activities taking place wholly or partially underground, limiting tax revenue and fostering operation of undersized and inefficient activities.”

The very first modifications to the April bill were made a scant few weeks later, following a strike by cocheros (horse cart drivers) in Bayamo, Granma Province (née Oriente Province). The provincial capital is immortalized in Cuba’s national anthem as the birthplace of independence. It is a place redolent with symbolism, and a situation best handled with care. Bayamo cocheros, members of one of the newly privatized occupations, discovered that when they added their new tax liability to their clients’ bill, demand plummeted. So they went on strike.

The new self-employment taxes consist of four categories: social security tax, personal income tax, sales tax, and payroll tax. Let’s look at each.

1. The social security tax is levied at 25% of the tax base (in the US, it’s about 13% — with half paid by the employer). So far, so progressive.

2. The personal income tax gives a whole new meaning to “taxing the rich.” Marginal rates rise to 50% for annual incomes of $208! When combined with the social security levies, the personal tax nears 60%. Mindful of the reader’s attention span, I will skip all the qualifying fine print, ceilings, and permutations that complicate the base tax rate — except for business expenditures, aka deductions. These are limited to 20% or 40%, depending on the enterprise.

As Luis notes: “These rates discriminate against enterprises whose cost of inputs exceed[s] 40%, which will lead to curtailment of activity, firm creation, and widespread tax evasion.” Cocheros, for some unknown reason,were limited to a 20% business expenditures deduction.

To a populace that has never paid taxes, much less dealt with the fine points of business expense deductions and tax accounting protocols, the entireexperience must have been far from “liberalizing.” It was reminiscent of a farcical zarzuela, the Spanish version of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, with a dose of Monty Python thrown in for gravitas. The Congress responded by raising cocheros’ allowable deductions from 20% to 40%.

3. Sales taxes for all products are levied at 10%, except for farm products, which are taxed at 5%. Simple enough.

4. The new payroll taxes are not only complex; they (along with the other taxes) actually, as Luis observes, “pose a formidable constraint on employment.” The following summary — through no fault of Luis — is beyond this author’s ability to make intelligible, much less fun:

A new 25% payroll tax is instituted. The base of the tax is the overall wage bill except that there is a minimum taxable amount equal to a multiple of the average wage for specific workers calculated by the appropriate local labor office. The base is made progressive as the minimum taxable amount increases with the size of the payroll. Thus for firms with 1 to 9 workers, the minimum equals 1.5 times, rising to 2 times for those between 10 and 15 workers and to 3 times for those firms that have more than 15 employees.

So much for the new taxes. Will Cuba’s vision of self-employment provide the fiscal salvation the government so desperately needs, or is it just a tempest in a teapot?

If the government succeeds in shifting 250,000 government workers into self-employment, and they pay all their taxes, Luis estimates a $40 million revenue windfall for the government (not to mention all the supplies and material that would not be pilfered or stolen from state companies and offices, as supplements for employees’ meager salaries — a point important enough that Luis footnotes it in his report). But so far, no more than 50,000 state employees have taken the bait.

The eminent French art critic and father of surrealism, André Breton, visiting Cuba in the late 1920s, observed that, “Truly, Cuba is too surrealistic a country to be livable.”

Furthermore, it’s impossible to predict the tax compliance rate, which, worldwide, is low for the self-employed. “However,” Luis observes, “it is expected that the fiscal authorities will enforce the tax code with some vigor. Undoubtedly, the high tax rates will act as an incentive to evasion and to a reversion of business to the underground economy. Sizeable underreporting of revenues is to be anticipated.”

In 2011, Cuba’s population was 11 million. As of mid-May 2011, about 300,000 people were self-employed (excluding farmers); or (with slightly different numbers), never more than 3.5% of the labor force. Though the passage of the new legislation doubled the number of self-employed, a large percentage of them were people who came out of the black market closet and hope to become legal.

Luis’ analysis bears some contextual elaboration because, as Miguel Bretos, author of Matanzas: The Cuba Nobody Knows, has stated, “Those seeking to understand Cuban history in conventional ways are doomed to frustration.” He was referring to the eminent French art critic and father of surrealism, André Breton, who, visiting Cuba in the late 1920s, observed that, “Truly, Cuba is too surrealistic a country to be livable.”

What makes the details of the reforms so surreal is their schizophrenic set of objectives. When first proposed, the reforms were compared to the Chinese model: an infusion of capitalism to build wealth, with the Communist Party retaining absolute power. But, as the Chinese are discovering, when laissez faire markets infect a regime of total power, the liberty virus proves hard to cure.

The Chinese are a practical people with few Maoist ideologues left among them. No one, from the highest party apparatchik to the lowliest peasant, objects to becoming richer. Meanwhile, power is being incrementally ceded through a phenomenon usually foreign to absolutist regimes: limited but sensitive responses to popular dissatisfaction with corruption, judicial arbitrariness, environmental degradation, out-of-control eminent domain, and even — very slightly — the transfer of some political power. (For example, provincial officials in Wukan, Guangdong Province, are allowing local elections to take place.) Moreover, the Chinese are rather comfortable with duality; witness the Taoist concept of yin and yang.

It’s not quite so simple for Cubans.

The competing objectives of raising capital through economic liberalization while retaining absolute power are — in Cuba — complicated by a third factor that tips the reforms from the bipolar into the surreal: an anti-capitalist idealism so fervent that it equates private employment with involuntary servitude, profit with depravity, and self-employment with crimes against society. These attitudes not only saturate the nomenklatura — with their source and apogee in the moralist-in-chief, Fidel — but also pervade the majority of the Cuban population. Cubans are poor and unhappy; they sense that something is wrong with the system; they are starving for change. Yet they idolize St. Fidel’s idealism and venerate him as the conscience of the Revolution.

As the Chinese are discovering, when laissez faire markets infect a regime of total power, the liberty virus proves hard to cure.

National character, along with its kinfolk — ethnic, religious, cultural, and racial character — has fallen into disrepute as a way of defining a population. Whatever validity it might once have possessed has evaporated. It has been dismissed for its oversimplification, unscientific methodology, racist undertones, and complete absence of political correctness. But it retains a great deal of insight and literary utility, when considered informally. Hedrick Smith was definitely onto something when he described the Russian character as a cross between German and Mexican temperaments.

Cuba was ruled by Spain for over 400 years — longer than any of its other colonies. During the Latin American wars of independence in the 1820’s, Cuba remained staunchly Spanish. By the time it won its independence in 1902, it was considered an integral part of Spain. That date is so recent that in 1966 the last surviving Afro-Cuban general of the War for Independence, Generoso Campos Marquetti (by then living in the US, in exile from Castro’s revolution), was asked to testify before the US Congress during hearings investigating the nature of the Castro Revolution. It’s as if Nathanael Greene or Henry Knox had still been alive within our living memories, to comment on US current affairs.

The Cuban character is a diversely spiced mélange. Settled by immigrants from Galicia, Asturias, Catalonia, and the Basque Provinces in northern Spain, Cuba was infused with a strain of rigid, dour, doctrinaire, and humorless temperament. Fidel Castro is a second-generation Galician — he can’t dance, carry a tune, or tell a joke. Though he would reject the comparison (in spite of his early flirtations with Falangism and Fascism) Castro has much in common with the long-lived and long-ruling Francisco Franco and his Minister of Propaganda, José Millán-Astray — both Galicians.

General Millán-Astray was a serious parody of himself. Founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion and a decorated war hero who’d lost an arm and an eye, he personified Spanish fascism. He was obstinate and ruthless, yet impulsive; flamboyant, reckless, and self-aggrandizing. At rallies he resembled the mad Dr. Strangelove. Wearing one white glove and a black eye patch, he would exaggeratedly throw out his one arm in the Nationalist salute, while shouting his telltale mottoes, “Viva la muerte!” ("long live death") and “Death to intelligence!” ("death to the intelligentsia").

Cubans are poor and unhappy; they sense that something is wrong with the system; they are starving for change. Yet they idolize St. Fidel.

Ladino and Canary Islands immigrants added cunning, perspicacity, and some levity to the Cuban national character; Andalucians, Valencian gypsies, and West African slaves tempered the whole with rhythm and a wry sense of humor. Provincial and (in the case of the West Africans) tribal clubs, mutual aid societies, and other ethnic affiliations lasted well into the 1960s.

The Spanish component of the Cuban character alone suffices to explain the paradoxes inherent in holding multiple contradictory perspectives. Pepe Azcarraga, a 91-year-old Spaniard from a small village in Aragon (but now a retired college professor living in the US), personifies this Weltanschauung. He recounts that once, as a teenager, he accompanied a friend to the dry goods almacén to buy towels. On the way back, he helped her carry the goods, stacked on his doubled arms. As he passed by his own house, his mother, perched on the second-floor balcony, spotted him on the cobbled street below supporting the pile of towels in front of him as if they were the Blessed Sacrament and he was leading an Easter procession. She beckoned to him angrily. Puzzled, he detoured into his house.

Once inside, she asked him what the diablo he thought he was doing carrying a pile of towels for all the world to see. Before he could answer, she walloped the fear of propriety into him, moaning that “the whole town will think the Azcarraga family needs towels!”

Pepe tells the story without a hint of irony, as if his failure to anticipate the finer etiquette of towel buying in a gossipy small town were an obvious sign of his stupidity. At different times, depending on the context of the conversation, he’ll call himself a socialist, a capitalist, a libertarian, or simply a man of the left. He and his immediate family sided with Franco during the Civil War — for the sake of order and stability. Yet as members of the local militia guarding the frontier against infiltration from Republican guerrillas holding out in the French Pyrenees after the war, Pepe and his friends, when off-duty, would cross over and (avoiding politics) socialize with the enemy, many of whom were friends, family, and acquaintances. They shared snacks, smokes, stories, and beer. A devout Catholic who attends Mass every Sunday, he is nonetheless skeptical of the existence of an afterlife — and he harbors a sense of unworthiness that keeps him from communion.

Pepe stands on the shoulders of giant, original, way-outside-the-box thinkers: surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, whose melting clocks epitomize the persistence of memory; philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who introduced doubt to faith, and found that they got along just fine; writer Miguel de Cervantes, whose Don Quixote — the patron saint of hopeless causes — made tilting at windmills not only intelligible but honorable; and Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada (literally, twist and burn), whose auto da fés melted heretics in order to save them. To an Anglo-Saxon who can only shake his head in perplexity, like a mental centrifuge spinning to separate the conflicting strains, little of this intellectual anarchy makes sense.

Fidel Castro, the Cuban Communist Party, and their recent economic reforms embody this cognitive dissonance. Luis’ assessment is not sanguine: “It is evident from the multiple constraints, prohibitions, regulations and high taxes involved in the new measures the authorities are striving to maintain tight control over the liberalization process. These controls will dampen or even fully contain the output and consumption gains from market opening.”

And the controls are extensive. One-hundred-and-seventy-eight self-employment occupations have been legalized (up from 157); most require little or no capital (animal caretaker, hairdresser, locksmith, plumber, mason, mattress repairman). A few others, such as room renting (though not to foreigners, and no subletting) and transportation services (truck and taxi driving) imply greater use of property or equipment. Restaurants are now allowed 50 tables, up from 20. Capital investment is capped at $800.

Even the most touted reform, the buying and selling of real estate, is less than meets the eye. Ownership is limited to domiciles — one residence and one vacation home — and possession is limited to citizens or foreigners permanently residing in Cuba.

Additionally, the domestic portion of the reforms requires that all transactions take place in nonconvertible pesos. (Cuba has dual currencies: convertible and non-convertible pesos — one for tourists, the other for Cubans — both highly controlled.) Foreign investment in the newly allowed enterprises is forbidden; as are family and personal remittances (also subject to taxes), which must only be used for personal consumption. Wholesale activities, inter-provincial trades, and most intermediation among firms are also forbidden.

“Intermediation” — a fancy word to describe the place that banks (among other entities) hold between savers and investors: they take deposits, then lend them out to entrepreneurs. Cuba’s (official) private savings rate for the last six years is about 2% of income — not an important source of financing for new enterprises, though probably understated because of non-bank and in-kind savings. As Luis again drily notes, “Most bank loans are made to state enterprises. A vibrant self-employment sector would be helped greatly by access to credit from the banking system. This would require building-up a credit system, with an important role for micro-credits by local branches of banks with appropriate credit expertise . . . [as in] Asia.”

Fidel Castro is a second-generation Galician — he can’t dance, carry a tune, or tell a joke.

Any reforms along those lines are unlikely, because they would undermine the institutionalized apartheid system that attempts to minimize economic fraternization between Cubans and foreigners. Very few of the newly approved occupations affect the export or tourist sector, and the government monopoly on labor for joint venture and foreign enterprises has not been affected. It is surprising that the new employment and tax measures do not address Cuba’s external accounts, even though more foreign investment — under the pre-existing framework — is being attracted.

Luis boldly sums up his report with an estimate of the impact of the reforms on Cuba’s GDP. He admits he’s on shaky ground — with disclaimers, caveats, weasel words, and the assumption that many more black-market enterprises will come into the open. Despite the effects of government controls, he broadly predicts a 2% GDP increase as a low estimate, with a 6.4% GDP increase if all the hoped-for 250,000 state employees become successful entrepreneurs, make lots of money, and pay all their taxes.

The Cuban reforms are a tug-of-war among various conflicting objectives: on the practical level, increasing state revenue while maintaining total state power; on the philosophical level, allowing enough “human action” (in the Misesian sense) without diluting the “social justice” objectives of the Revolution by introducing greed, ambition, and a subversive focus on individuality.

On that last point — to paraphrase Charles Darwin, who, at the conclusion of The Origin of Species, foretold that “light will be thrown on the origin of man” — the Cuban reforms will shed much light on how far the capitalist goose that lays the eggs of prosperity can be starved, strangled, and robbed, without killing it.




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Rising Star

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Liberty is always delighted to acclaim the artistic success of libertarians. Our delight is increased when they are Liberty’s own authors.

Today it is my pleasure to introduce a book by one of my own favorites, Garin Hovannisian. The book is Family of Shadows, it’s published by HarperCollins, and it’s causing a stir on several continents.

Family of Shadows is the story of Garin’s family — who were by no means vague or ghostly people. They were vivid presences, taking their part in some of the most interesting events of the 20th century, from the massacres in Armenia during the time of “the breaking of nations” to the destruction of the Soviet Union. The book is a story of survival, and of the individual freedom that makes survival worth the effort.

It’s also a story told with great style and insight. All historians deal with “shadows,” but a good historian makes them more substantial than the ostensibly real people who surround us daily. And a good historian, like a good novelist, makes us wiser as we read. While reading Family of Shadows, I kept thinking, “This is a very good novel.” But it’s not fiction, nor is it fictionalized. It’s an exhaustively researched history, free of the shallow assumptions, inane theorizing, and formulaic prose of normal historical writing.

Read it for yourself. You’ll find that you won’t be able to put it down. In the meantime, I thought you’d be interested in knowing more about the author. So I asked Alec Mouhibian, himself a writer for Liberty, to interview his friend Garin.

Here’s a look into the writer’s workshop.

 — Stephen Cox

***

AM: Stories ask to be told. But some stories prefer to be left alone. Why, and how, did this story call to you?

GH: It's strange; I can remember exactly when and where it happened. It was in the fall of 2007. I was all alone in a computer lab on the eighth floor of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. I was a student there, writing my master's thesis about a group of magicians who had been meeting in secret for generations. . . . I'm not sure that's important. But what happened to me that afternoon is, I think, what writers waste their lives waiting for, one of those cosmic events — when stars seem to align into a constellation. . . .

What I mean to say is that I discovered, suddenly and for the first time, that all the details and metaphors and meanings of my family history somehow belonged to a great narrative.

My great-grandfather Kaspar had survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and escaped to the vineyards of California's San Joaquin Valley. My grandfather Richard had left his father's farm to pioneer the field of Armenian Studies in the United States. My father Raffi had left his law firm, the American Dream itself, to repatriate to Soviet Armenia, where he went on to serve as the new republic's first foreign minister.

So I realized that the family story was about three men who left — individuals who cheated their destinies — but it was also about men who, unbeknownst to them, had been serving a pattern greater than themselves. A homeland lost, remembered, regained — it was a perfect circle!

Then I knew I would have to write Family of Shadows.

AM: You mentioned how this story hit you as you were wandering the world of magic. You're quite the magician yourself. What connection is there between your history with magic and the discovery that led to this book?

GH: My father gave me my first magic set when I was five, and I knew immediately that I would become a magician. I loved to make the impossible happen, to play at the border of reality and fantasy. Of course I also loved to watch the reactions of people — the astonishment spread upon the faces of strangers. Anyway, I long ago gave up the wand for the pen, but not, I think, the passions that run through both of them: mystery and vanity.

AM: Explain where you had to go to write this book, what you had to explore, and how this vastarray of settings get along with each other in the story and in your mind.

GH: I didn't know, when I decided to write the book, just how far I would have to travel. I couldn't imagine that I would have to spend countless hours at the National Archives in Washington or the Armenian academy called the Jemaran in Beirut or the National Library in Yerevan or the Tulare Historical Museum in the San Joaquin Valley of California. But I think it was that other kind of travel — not through space, but into lost time — that was the most exhilarating. I realized that if I were to tell my story straight, I would have to conduct some difficult interviews — to go deep into the minds and memories of my living characters, where so many details of my story had been trapped for decades.

AM: Your book is evenly divided between the histories ofthree men. Before we go further, explain your process for choosing what to include and what to leave out of their story, and the stories of the many characters surrounding them.

GH: The book, as I first wrote it, was about 450 pages long. The one you'll find in bookstores today is 300. You know very well that you were in part responsible for this. I remember the first time you read the manuscript. I was sitting across from you, minding my coffee, pretending not to notice your reactions. You were quiet, mostly, but every so often, you would emerge from silence to sing the blues, and I knew this wasn't a good sign.

AM: I never thought my rendition of "My Baby Ain't No Baby No More" could be so pregnant.

GH: Oh, it was — and actually it made me realize just how big my own book had become. The truth was that those 150 pages were important — they told so much history and gossip — but they weren't important for this book. So I began to cut. It was slow and deliberate and painful at first. But then you remember what happened to me? Suddenly, I was slashing away at my pages — reversing months of labor. I bet I lost a lot of good lines, too, but it was necessary and, ultimately, deeply liberating.

AM: Homeland. Patterns greater than self. These fall under the greater concept of "Armenia," toward which all the dream-roads in your book lead. Define Armenia — in your own terms — for those (including Armenians) who have no idea what it might mean.

GH: To begin with, Armenia is an actual land — stretching between the Black and Caspian seas — where the Armenian people have lived for thousands of years. We used to have our own empire, but for most of history we were content merely to survive the rise and fall of neighboring empires — the Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Arab. Armenia was where kings came to do battle. And so the blood, the ethos, the mythology of countless civilizations is in our soil.

Armenian history forever changed in 1915. Western Armenia was cleansed of all Armenians by the nationalist Young Turk regime of the Ottoman Empire; those who survived the genocide scattered to new diasporas across the world. Eastern Armenia, meanwhile, was absorbed into the Soviet Union as the smallest of the 15 socialist republics. That tiny sliver of land is the Armenia you'll find on modern maps.

But for much of the 20th century, Armenia existed mostly as a dream. My father and my grandfather before him spent their childhoods yearning for a "free, independent, united Armenia." Forgive me, I do have to be poetic, because the truth is that for us, the millions of Armenians living in exile and dispersion, Armenia had become something like a poem: a spiritual landscape blossoming with metaphor and mystery and apricot. It is there that Family of Shadows is set.

AM: Mmm, metaphor. That strangest and most bitter Armenian crop.

Let's talk about Liberty, and its own role in the soil. I've known you for years, but I never really wanted to know you until your byline appeared in this magazine at the tender age of 17. How does individual liberty figure in the Armenian-American dream? How does it contend with the shadows that haunt every corner of the real and imagined Armenia?

GH: You're testing me. "Let's talk about Liberty" — wasn't that the slogan of the Cato Institute conference we attended in San Diego ages ago? That's where we first met Stephen Cox — followed him into literature and then into Liberty. It was our breakthrough!

Now you know as well as I do that Family of Shadows isn't a libertarian manifesto. But it is, I've long secretly believed, a kind of allegory of individualism and rebellion. At its deepest level, it is the story of three men who were born into times and places where they did not belong, who defied the great forces of history, who defied destiny. My great-grandfather defied his destiny of death during the genocide of 1915. My grandfather rejected his destiny on his father's farm. My father abandoned his destiny in the American Dream.

Maybe that's not fair, though. For my father, I think, the American Dream was never about achieving and enjoying liberty for oneself, but about spreading liberty across countries and continents.

AM: Is there no tension between the spread of liberty and the participation in an ethnic-national heritage, which might be at odds with individualism? How can this be reconciled in Armenia?

GH: Governments don't have ethnicities. People do. So I confess not to feel the tension. I don't see why an individual, living in a free society, shouldn't feel free to seek his private solace or meaning or peace wherever he pleases — in philosophy, religion, even national heritage. You build yourself a free country, but then what? You still have private problems. You still have to deal with death and salvation.As the great poet sings, "you're still gonna have to serve somebody."

AM: Classic Milton. Always comes through. Now of course your book is a powerful human drama, and should therefore matter to anyone who ranks himself among the humans. But perhaps you can explain why Armenia should matter to America.

GH: After the genocide of 1915, an unprecedented human rights movement swept through the United States. American citizens collected more than a hundred million dollars to help the surviving refugees; kids who didn't finish their suppers were told to remember "the starving Armenians." The most important witnesses and chroniclers of the genocide had been American ambassadors and consuls, and now it was the president himself — Woodrow Wilson — who was proposing an American mandate to safeguard Armenia.

In those years, the American people invested their spirit in the Armenian struggle — and I think the mysterious logic of that investment has revealed itself slowly through time. It's been forgotten, but in February 1988, half a million Armenians gathered in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia, to launch the first successful mass movement against Communist rule. Independence followed in 1991. That's when my father, an American citizen, returned to Armenia. That's also about the time when a million Armenians left a newborn Armenia to seek more certain destinies in the United States.

The stories, the histories, the Armenian and the American Dreams, were in conversation long before I tried to capture that conversation in Family of Shadows.

AM: The Russians have a saying: “Every grandmother was once a girl.” Perhaps it can also be said that every answer was once a question. So...any questions before you go?

GH: You know, I have been wondering: who is John Galt?




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A Cigar

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In my youth, I was spoiled for a long time. No one really spoiled me. I took care to spoil myself, again and again. But the bitch Reality often intruded.

I was spending a dream summer on a small Mexican island on the Caribbean. Everyone should have at least one dream summer, I think, and no one should wait for old age. I had several dream summers myself. Anyway, my then-future-ex-wife, or TFEW (pronounced as spelled) and I were renting one of four joined concrete cubes right on the beach, on the seaward side of the island.

There was no running water in the cell but you could clear the indoor toilet with a bucket of seawater. You could also buy a bucket of nearly fresh water for a shower. There was a veranda and the doors locked. We slept in our own hammocks outside in the sea breeze most nights, although there was a cot inside. We also cooked on our butane stove on the veranda. We thought it was all cool. There was a million-dollar ocean view (probably an underestimate).

To feed ourselves, we bought pounds of local oranges and bread baked daily. Mostly, I dived for fish and spiny lobster all day. It got to the point where we grew tired of lobster. I even went to the water's edge slaughterhouse early one morning to compete for some shreds of bleeding turtle meat. Turtle meat, it turns out, looks like beef, but it tastes like old fish. Then I invented new ways of cooking lobster. The TFEW was a good soldier who liked reading. Also, her patience was frequently rewarded (but I am too much the gentleman to expand on this).

One morning, I woke up by myself near dawn and prepared my Nescafé, bent down on the small butane stove set on the tiled floor of the veranda. I looked up to the sea for a second and I was hit by a scene from the great Spanish director Luis Buñuel. Less than one hundred yards from me, bobbing up and down but stationary, was a low wooden boat packed with about 50 or 60 people just standing silently. They were not talking, they were not shouting, and they were not moving. It was like a dream, of course, but I knew I was not dreaming. Quickly, details came into focus. One detail was that one of the people in the boat wore a khaki uniform and the characteristic hat of the Cuban militia. Goddamn, I thought, this is what I have been reading and seeing on television for years! It's the real thing!

Then the practical part of my brain took over. I tried to yell at them that my rocky beach was not a good place to land. One made a gesture indicating they could not hear me because of the small breakers. Bravely, I abandoned my undrunk Nescafé and dived into the waters I knew well, because I had taken a dozen lobsters right there, under the same rocks, in front of my door. I did the short swim in a minute or two, and hanging from the side of the boat I told them how to go around a nearby point past which there was a real harbor. They thanked me in a low voice, like very tired people, in a language that was clearly Spanish but that sounded almost comical to my ears.

An hour later, I walked to the harbor where the main café also was to find out about my refugees. Naturally, I felt a little possessive of them since I had discovered them all by myself. Soon after I arrived, they started coming out of processing by the local Mexican authorities. (Incidentally, I think I witnessed there a model of humane efficiency worth mentioning.) Each walked toward the café, an envelope of Mexican pesos in hand.

A tall, skinny black Cuban spotted me, from earlier in the morning, when I was in the water. He walked briskly to me and took me in his arms. It was moving but pretty natural, since I was the first free human being he had laid eyes on in his peril-fraught path to freedom. He spoke very quickly with an accent I was not used to. What perplexed me is that he kept saying “negro,” with great emotion. After a few seconds in his embrace, I realized he was calling me, “mi negro.” I wondered for an instant how I had become a Negro's Negro. Then it came back to me, out of some long buried reading, that Cuban men sometimes call their mistress “mi negra,” irrespective of color, the overt color reference serving as a term of endearment, of tenderness.

I took my new buddy to the café to buy him breakfast. He pulled out my chair ceremoniously and took an oblong metallic object out of the breast pocket of his thin synthetic shirt. This he handed to me with tears in his eyes. Inside was a long Cuban cigar. I did not have the heart to tell him I did not like cigars. I smoked the damn thing until my stomach floated in my throat. He watched beatifically, in the lucid understanding that that little act testified to his personal victory against the barbarism of communism.




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