Must-Read: Political Freedom First

Sunday, January 8, 2012
By Professor Jose Azel in The Miami Herald:

Decapitating Cubans’ hope for political freedom

In the study of government transitions, particularly those that took place in Eastern and Central Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a pivotal argument about the sequencing of reforms took the form of a “chicken or the egg” causality dilemma: What should come first, political or economic changes? Since, in most countries economic prosperity is found together with personal freedoms, some postulate that economic reforms cause the advent of political freedoms.

However, the fact that two events are frequently observed together does not mean that one causes the other. Logicians often offer a quotidian example to illustrate the reasoning error: We press the button to call the elevator, wait impatiently, and then press it again. The elevator arrives, and we incorrectly deduce that the second button push is what caused the elevator to come. In logic, the principle that correlation does not imply causation is known as the “ cum hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy, (Latin for “with this, therefore because of this”).

The error of this argument can be readily shown by examining the experiences of China and Vietnam.

China began profound market-based economic reforms in 1978 and Vietnam shortly after. Today, both of these countries are significantly wealthier, but after three decades of economic progress, political reforms have not followed. China and Vietnam remain totalitarian states and classified as “Not Free” in the yearly Freedom House ranking.

What the experiences of China and Vietnam demonstrate is the virtue of free-market reforms and capitalism as engines for economic progress. The experiences of these countries cannot be logically offered as a path to personal freedoms and citizenry empowerment. Note, for example, that China’s new wealthy business class increasingly is seeking to live abroad to be able to enjoy a freedom as basic as having a second child.

This would be a pedantic discussion except that the reasoning fallacy leads many, motivated by high ideals, to embrace coercive polices on humanitarian grounds. Isabel Paterson in her classic 1943 book, The God of the Machine, labels this syndrome “The Humanitarian with the Guillotine.”

In the Cuba policy debate, the humanitarians with the guillotine endorse minuscule and coercive changes by that totalitarian regime as meaningful. For example the Cuban government recently announced, with considerable fanfare, that the number of permitted self-employment activities would be increased from 178 to 181. Now, in addition to being able to baby-sit and shine shoes, Cubans will be allowed to do tile work and become party planners. Humanitarians applaud this humiliating doling out of subsistence.

The most recent reform captures headlines like “Cuba will allow the purchase and sale of properties.” The reality is much more pernicious. The sales will be on a cash basis only since there is no mortgage banking system. Cubans do not have discretionary capital for such transactions, and thus the transactions are likely to be financed with remittances from the Cuban diaspora — hard currency transfers that will strengthen the regime.

In principle, humanitarians and all freedom-loving people would agree that policies that tend to prolong the existence of totalitarian regimes should not be supported. In practice, misled by the “with this, therefore because of this” fallacy, they end up doing just that. In doing so they release the guillotine’s blade that decapitates the hope for political freedoms.

There is a great deal of pain and distress incidental to existence, and the desire to do good for others can lead us to accept change without political freedoms and enforced by compulsion. But, the relief for this existential distress lies, not only in improving material well-being, but in obtaining the personal freedoms that give meaning to human existence.

In the political realm these freedoms are expressed in open debate and via free, fair, and frequent elections that allow a citizenry to change its leadership. These are conditions that do not exist in China, Vietnam or Cuba and are not likely to follow economic liberalization.

Good governance and our pursuit of happiness require political pluralism and an engaged citizenry empowered to change its leaders, as is vividly expressed by the old adage: Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.

José Azel is a senior scholar at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies and the author of the book, Mañana in Cuba.