When Theodore Dalrymple visited Cuba some years ago, part of his report included this:
“And old people in particular are inclined to murmur jabon (soap) as you pass, in the hope that you might have some of this rare and precious commodity to give away. When the first old lady came up to me and said jabon, I thought she was mad; but she was only the
the first of many.” (Our Culture, What’s Left of It, p. 182; the essay in which this anecdote appears was originally published in 2002)
I don’t know if the situation has changed in Cuba, in the last 14 years, but Mr. Dalrymple’s story reminds us of one of the differences between a communist or command economy, and a free market economy: stuff in one place can be difficult to come by, and inexpensive in the other. Take a guess where it’s hard to come by, and where it’s cheap. Sorry, no prize for guessing correctly.
In communist Cuba, soap was so rare that old ladies would beg for it from foreign visitors. In the U.S., I can walk into a Dollar Tree (or plenty of other stores), and buy three bars of high quality soap for $1.00 (plus seven cents tax). Three bars of soap will last the normal person of cleanly habits for many months. If I work one hour for $7.25 (the minimum wage–a topic for another day!), I can buy three bars of soap, six or ten razors, a can of shaving cream, a bottle of shampoo, ten good pens, plenty of paper, and, even after tax is added, pay only $6.42. I can stay well groomed, and be able to write endless pages of my next best seller, for less than the amount of money I earned for working one hour. This happens without me having to hold a gun to the head of my suppliers. In fact, they are very pleased to sell me three bars of soap for a dollar, and ten pens for a dollar. Somehow or other they are able to make a profit on the deal.
Leaving other people alone is part of the Eighth Commandment in action. ‘”You shall not steal”‘ (Exodus 20:15). I didn’t want to steal from the people at Dollar Tree, and they did not want to steal from me. They end up with a small profit on what they sell, which adds up to a large profit if enough people buy what they are selling. And I end up with lots of useful and helpful products, for almost no expenditure of energy on my part. At $1.00 for three bars of soap, I worked 8.28 minutes, assuming I was paid the minimum wage. The old ladies in Cuba could not get soap at all. I can get three bars for working 8 minutes and 17 seconds.
The Eighth Commandment turns out to be practical. Maybe spiritual and practical go together. Dollar Tree doesn’t try to steal from me, I don’t try to steal from them, and we are all blessed.
The next time some cornball politician wants you to vote him into office so that he can make laws which remove your neighbor’s property to give to you, think about where that kind of behavior leads to ultimately: ladies in Cuba begging for soap. Think about the alternative: people leaving each other alone, with mutual benefit.
Ideas and actions have consequences.