Rationing v. Free Markets

Havana Real (Sanchez)Speculation grows about the disappearance of food rationing. Amid fear and hope, some say that by early 2010 the quota for salt and sugar will already be history and that liberalization of other foods will follow. Those who are frightened by this can’t imagine a life without benefits from the State, without the crutch of subsidization. I myself was born entered into a ration book where every gram of what I put into my mouth was written down. Had I grown up only on what was regulated, I would have a body even more rickety than the one I now possess. Fortunately, life has many more options than the grids on which, every month, the shopkeeper marks the minimal rations received.

If the 66 million pounds of rice rationed ever month were available via a free market, prices would go down. You could decide, instead of buying rice again, to buy potatoes or vegetables. And no one would declare, “I will take everything they give me, before I will leave it in the shop.” And there wouldn’t be that feeling that they are giving us something — especially that sense of guilt that keeps us from protesting or criticizing those who guarantee these tiny portions. The ration market should remain for those who suffer physical or psychological impairment or who are unemployed. In short, it should go to those who need social security to survive.

Although the idea seems simple, the stumbling block is that wages are adjusted to subsidized food prices and don’t relate to free prices. To say to a Cuban family that starting tomorrow they will not receive the limited quantities and doubtful quality they currently get from the ration store, would be to saw off the one branch on which they’re standing. The birdseed is difficult to eliminate because you can only get rid of it once you open the cage doors.

So, the real news we are waiting for is not the end of rationing, but rather the end of economic handicaps, the end of the paternalistic relationship that keeps us like pigeons, dependent and … hungry.

— Yoani Sánchez, Havana Real (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2010), pp. 154–155.

  • Stadius

    It’s a long way from, say, rationing in Britain during WW2 to this though, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s just unavoidable; the rationing of electricity for example, was vital to ensure supply to the munitions factories, and prevent systemic failure. As long as people see the necessity, they’re generally willing to support it; black marketeers were looked upon disapprovingly by most, and most old people kept their ration books as mementos. Just as important is what’s actually being rationed; there was no danger of ricketts, etc., and by all accounts it significantly improved the health and life expectancy of the (civilian) population.

    • http://economicthought.net/blog JCatalan

      I mean, yea, if you’re fighting a major war, then society might pardon a government that needs to ration raw materials for the sake of the war effort. But, Cuba isn’t fighting a war.