Cuba: A Tragedy of the Commons

By: José Azel - Aug 12, 2013, 8:03 am

Over half a century ago, the Cuban Revolution abolished all private property rights, pursuing heaven on earth with the communist premise that the entire community would own all property and a “new man” would emerge that would be communal in outlook and sacrificial for the common good. That experiment has turned out as an economically bankrupt dystopian society featuring enormously repressive social control systems and a government with unlimited power over its citizens.

Today, the collapse of the Cuban economy can be clearly traced to its communal ideology and actions against private property rights. The fallacy of communal approaches was vividly described by Garrett Hardin in his influential 1968 scientific article titled: “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The article describes a dilemma of herders sharing a common pasture on which they are entitled to let their cows graze. The “tragedy of the commons” is thus a shorthand metaphor for a structural relationship and its consequences — specifically, common versus private property ownership.

Under the common property condition described by Hardin, each herdsman, acting rationally, will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons, even if the capacity of the commons is exceeded and it is ultimately depleted to the detriment of all. Individually, each herder receives the benefits from his additional animals, while the damage is shared jointly by the entire group. This asymmetrical division of costs and benefits gives rise to the tragedy of the commons inherent in communal systems devoid of private property rights.

Any resource held in common is owned by everyone and by no one, thus everyone has an incentive to overuse it, and no one has an incentive to preserve it. Aristotle expressed it succinctly, “For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.” Economic history shows that individual owners take better care of their own property than they do of common property. And yet, the utopian chase of the commons and its attendant governmental controls persists.

On the eve of the Cuban Revolution about 80 percent of Cuba’s arable land was under cultivation (or used for grazing) and domestic production supplied 70 percent of the country’s food consumption. The comparable figures today are 60 percent and 20 percent respectively.

The extraordinary degree of Communist Cuba’s unproductivity is most dramatically shown by comparative analyses of purchasing power. A study by the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies shows for example, that to purchase a 400-gram box (fourteen ounces) of powdered milk, the average Cuban worker has to work 57.5 hours. To make the same purchase, the average worker in Costa Rica has to work only 1.7 hours. Comparable inefficiencies hold for the other items in the consumer basket analyzed. In contrast, in 1957, Cuba’s income per capita was fourth in Latin America, and real wages in Cuba were higher than any country in Latin America.

Even though Cuba was certainly a corrupt and politically inept republic, many economic and social milestones were achieved, anchored on private property rights during its 56 years as a republic (1902-1958). In the following 52 years, since the abolishment of private property rights, Cuba has descended into its current pauperized and tragic socioeconomic situation. But longstanding beliefs are difficult to shed and private property rights are still vilified.

John Locke, the father of modern political philosophy, argued that people have natural rights — that is, rights that we possess prior to the existence of governments. These rights are not granted by government or any other human. Locke also articulated clearly the idea of property rights: “Every man has a property in his own person . . . The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say are properly his.”

The ownership of property is a necessary implication of self-ownership. Indeed, all human rights can be seen as derived from the one fundamental right of self-ownership.

The Cuban tragedy of the commons, rooted in its disdain for private property, and thus for human rights exemplifies, as Karl Popper once noted, how “the attempts to make heaven on earth invariably produce hell.”

This article first appeared in the Miami Herald.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.