Permits Are Not Freedom: Cuba’s Labor Reform Travesty

Cuban workers at a cigar factory (vifreepress)

In 2011, the Cuban government announced that it would fire up to 1.3 million workers from their government jobs — 20 percent of the workforce — but would magnanimously allow them to become self-employed in 178 trades that would then be permitted by the state. With a high degree of specificity, the government outlined the sanctioned activities. For example:

Trade No. 23: Purchase and sale of used books.

Trade 29: Attendant of public bathrooms (presumably for tips).

Trade 34: Palm-tree pruner (apparently other tress will still be pruned by the state).

Trade 49: Covering buttons with fabric

Trade 61: Shinning shoes

Trade 62: Cleaning spark plugs

Trade 110: Repair of box springs (not to be confused with 116, the repair of mattresses).

Trade 124: Umbrella repairs

Trade 125: Refilling of disposable cigarette lighters

Trade150: Fortune telling with tarot cards

Trade 156: Dandy (technical definition unknown, male escort?)

Trade 158: Peeling fruit (separate from Trade 142, selling fruit in kiosks).

The permitted activities have been increased to 205 and many in the Cuban-American and international communities interpret these changes as meaningful “reforms” that can help bring about an economic and political liberalization in Cuba.

I have frequently argued that this bizarre list of now-permitted trade activities will not drive economic development; rather, it reveals the regime’s totalitarian mindset. The list foreshadows the degree of control intended by the regime in their new program. These are not reforms to unleash the market’s “invisible hand,” but to reaffirm the Castros’ clenched fist.

But the Cuban government’s permission to engage in these trades embodies a more important philosophical message ignored by the regime’s apologists: Permission is not freedom.

Our natural freedoms are not permissions handed down from government, on the basis of policy considerations. In his book The Permission Society, constitutional scholar and litigator Timothy Sandefur examines the distinction between rights and privileges:

“We have freedom when we can make the operative choices about our lives … To the degree that we must ask someone else to let us act, we do not have rights but privileges — licenses that are granted, on limited terms, from someone who stands above us.”

Throughout history, kings and emperors — and in modern times, totalitarian regimes — have restricted freedom by presuming that everything is forbidden unless specifically allowed. These absolutist regimes practice the political doctrine of unlimited centralized authority with absolute sovereignty vested in a monarch or dictator. Under absolutist systems, the people enjoy no freedoms except those that the rulers choose to allow. Such is the case in Cuba with these now-permitted trades.

In the United States, the Founding Fathers inaugurated a new form of government by presuming instead that everything that is not forbidden is allowed. In the Founding Fathers’ vision, individuals have natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the government must ask permission from them, not the other way around. It is a conception of government where government exists, not to give people rights, but to protect their natural rights.

One fundamental problem with the absolutist idea of government is that when freedom is granted by authority, it will consist only of those freedoms that the authority chooses to grant, and only for as long as it chooses to grant them.

In Cuba, this is not just a philosophical problem. In the early 1990s, Cuba experienced a profound economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the loss of economic subsides from the communist camp. To deal with the crisis, the Cuban government instituted a number of economic liberalization reforms. But as soon as the reforms arrested the economic meltdown, the government reversed course.

Treating government-granted permissions as freedoms, as many do regarding Cuba, betrays our human dignity. Freedom is not a privilege that the state provides. Our freedom is a birthright that the state must protect.

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