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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Socialism and “Acts of God”


Natural catastrophes are usually described as “acts of God.” The theory behind this article, derived from experience, is that there is something even more terrible than these unexpected destructions: the incapacity of socialists to mitigate the acts of God. The topic is very important. Much of Latin America is betting on socialism, and that segment is composed of countries that are likely to be hit by major natural disasters—earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and monumental landslides. Those devastating experiences are even worse in societies organized around all-powerful States where civilian society has been deliberately decimated.

Let me explain. In Cuba, Hurricane Gustav has just destroyed more than 100,000 houses in the western end of the island. The Isle of Pines (now Isle of Youth) and Pinar del Río have been devastated by the hurricane ’s inclemency. Fidel Castro exaggerates when he states that the storm was the equivalent of a nuclear explosion, but it was very serious. Half a million people lack a roof over their heads, drinking water, electricity, food, and medicine. Thousands of schools, bridges, and agroindustrial enterprises—among them, the large tobacco-growing plains—and health centers have been demolished by the force of the water and the wind.

Fortunately, the loss of human life has been minimal, thanks to the fine skills of the nation ’s civil defense organization. Because it is a highly militarized society, set up in mass organizations that are vertically controlled by the political police, the government is capable of efficiently evacuating one million people in 24 hours. That is something they do better than the wealthiest democratic nations on the planet.

But that ’s where the agony begins. No regime is as clumsy as socialism when it comes to rebuilding the damage wreaked by natural disaster or by wars. In Cuba, there are “temporary shelters” where numerous families have spent decades waiting for their homes to be rebuilt. Forty-five years ago, another devastating storm, Hurricane Flora, struck Cuba and the effects and evidence of that tragedy still linger. Nobody should be surprised. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, the whole world learned that the 44 years since the end of World War II had not been enough time for the communists to pick up the rubble left by Allied bombing.

Why are socialist-statist governments so incapable of rebuilding the material damage caused by the major disasters that periodically afflict almost all societies? The first reason has to do with the inventory of replacement parts. These societies are chronically short of supplies, totally unable to solve imponderable situations because of the infinite clumsiness of the models of planned economy. In Cuba, there are no replacement mattresses, pillows, toilet seats, furniture, or household appliances to deal with the most minor inconveniences. There are no doors, windows, roof tiles, or sheets of wood or uralite to rebuild ceilings and walls. In Cuba, there is practically nothing; the luckless man who lost what few clothes and shoes he had will spend years replacing his garments.

But the second reason is still more important. In the highly state-driven socialist societies (legendarily unproductive, all of them), there is only one center with a supply of resources (notoriously limited, always) that is capable of making decisions and executing them. That generates a chain of arbitrariness, corruption, and inefficiency that often translates into a creeping paralysis of the recovery process. Simply put, the functionaries who make the decisions are not the victims themselves but an intricate skein of apathetic bureaucrats who couldn ’t care less if a house or a bridge is rebuilt because their responsibility—in the best of cases—is to parsimoniously distribute the few resources that have been assigned to them.

Christopher Columbus learned about cyclones in Cuba, to be exact, and ever since they have been known by the name the Taíno Indians gave to the god responsible for unleashing them: huracán. Cuba always has been raked by hurricanes because it ’s in the path these awful giants usually take. This did not prevent the country from learning to deal with them skillfully. Just in the twentieth century, at least three hurricanes were worse than Gustav (those in 1926, 1932 and 1944), but in all three cases the scars left by those colossal storms disappeared in less than six months. Why? Because there was a dense civilian society, endowed with a thick commercial fabric, and every person knew what his immediate needs were and how to deal with them. The “invisible hand” operates not only under normal circumstances; it ’s even more efficient when it has to improvise life-or-death solutions. Today, that huge task, thoroughly complex and detailed, falls upon the State, and the State simply does not know how to perform it.


Carlos Alberto Montaner is a Member of the Board of Advisors for the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute and President of Firmas Press.