Life After the State

Dec 2013
Beware of watermelons
Life After the State.

Dominic Frisby.

Have you got the feeling that things are spiralling out of control, that politics has lost its way and that, despite government promises, nothing ever changes?

Well, you’re right.

In every instance where government gets involved in people’s lives with a desire to do good, it can always be relied on to make the situation much, much worse. Yet despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we imagine that a world without the state would be a wild and terrifying place. With wit and devastating clarity of argument, Frisby shows in this book that human nature proves the opposite to be true.

Welcome to Life After the State.

I read this book a few years ago and just recently stuck it on my audio book playlist. It is really good. A lot of things that people on both sides of the aisle have been saying lately are approached.

I will link the sample chapter below but here is a little blurb from it.

Prologue: Why Every Cuban Father Wanted His Daughter to be a Hooker

Cuban friends of mine in London had told me before I left, ‘You need dollars. You can’t buy anything with pesos.’ I was a pretty intrepid explorer in those days and dismissed this advice. I thought I’d be able to get off the beaten track into the real Cuba, where I could use pesos like real Cubans. But my friends were right. You couldn’t. There was, simply, nothing available to buy with pesos. There were no shops or businesses that accepted pesos, except the odd street stall that sold ice cream or bits of cooked dough, loosely described as pizza. Cubans got their bread and other essentials with ration books and a lot of queuing.

Western goods did exist. Clothing, electrical and hardware goods, and food and drink – Havana Club rum, beer, cheese and cured meats – were sold in grey, colourless supermarkets. The supermarkets were not at all cheap and, despite the fact that they were state-run, would only accept US dollars – one of the many hypocrisies I would encounter.

So the only way anyone could buy anything was with US dollars at a state-run store. However, most people were employed by the government in some way or other, and paid in Cuban pesos. So how did they get dollars?

The answer was: from the tourists.

Luis and Celia got their dollars renting out a room to tourists like me. Most Cubans didn’t have the option of an apartment with three bedrooms. (Luis’s parents had somehow managed to avoid it being expropriated) Some were lucky enough to have the use of a car and could be taxi drivers. But this was another option that was only available to a tiny few – there was no manufacture of cars and no import trade. You, or more likely your parents, would have somehow had to have acquired a car way back when, and kept hold of it. There were a few restaurants and bars scattered about, and a tiny, well-connected elite could become waiters. Where did that leave everyone else? Most turned to prostitution.

As an economist and a doctor, you’d expect Luis and Celia to be a fairly wealthy couple. And by Cuban standards they earned good salaries – about 500 pesos a month each. The official exchange rate was one peso to the dollar, thus they earned the equivalent of $500. The unofficial rate, however – the real market rate – was 20:1, so Luis and Celia’s 500 pesos amounted to about $25. A pair of jeans in the supermarket will cost twice that. But, remember, you could hardly buy anything with pesos.

One night’s rent from me was more money than Luis, a PhD, would earn in an entire month. A taxi driver might land that figure in two or three fares. On a good night, a waiter might earn that in tips. But the big money was in selling sex. If she found a generous boyfriend, a prostitute – a ‘jinetera’, as they were called – could earn many times that in one night.

More than any of the other European nations, it was Italy that seemed to have caught the Cuba bug. My flight out was full of Italians. All over Havana there were Italians. They loved Cuba. I naively thought it might have to do with the historical links between Italy and communism, but wandering around Havana I soon saw another reason. The Italian men loved the black Cuban women – and vice versa it seemed. Everywhere you looked you’d see stylish Italian men arm in arm with young Cuban black girls, their paid girlfriends for the two weeks they spent there.


think those lessons could be applied to us here in the UK in 2013. Of course, we’re not at the stage where we want our daughters to be jineteras. But I believe – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – that we’ve gone badly wrong in the developed world.

I’d like to ask you to remember where you were a decade or so ago, in the year 2000. I’m going to list some of the things that have happened since then. Did it cross your mind that we would see…

• Two stock market crashes of 1929 proportions and a financial crisis that almost brought down the entire global banking system.

• Youth unemployment in Greece at 62.5%, Spain at 57%, Portugal at 43%, Italy at 40% and an EU average of 24.4%. Or the Greeks calling Germans Nazis.

• Interest rates in the US at 0.25% and in the UK at 0.5% for years on end, runs on banks as people discover their money isn’t safe and the Bank of England actually printing money.

• A gap between rich and poor that has grown so big the richest 400 people in the world have assets equivalent to the poorest 140 million. The wealthiest 1% of Americans pocket a quarter of the country’s income and control as much as half of the nation’s total wealth, with CEOs of large banks and other large corporations earning as much as a thousand times more than low-ranking employees.

• The average age of the first-time UK house buyer at almost 40, with an entire generation of people in the UK that believing they will never own a home. Yet only 2.5% of British land is actually built on.

• Obesity rates of 25% in the developed world, yet almost a billion people suffering from chronic undernourishment, while over half the food we produce – some 2 billion tonnes – gets thrown away each year.

• 36 million people across the globe taking part in 3,000 protests against a war in the Middle East – and UK and US government ignoring them and going ahead with it anyway.

• Healthcare spending more than doubling from £68 billion to £143 billion in the 11 years to 2011, yet ‘basic clinical failings’ being commonplace across the NHS – with one NHS trust found liable for 1,200 people dying while in its care and a further five trusts facing investigation.

• Spending on schools in the UK rising by over 86%, while the Ofsted chief inspector declares ‘standards have stalled’.

• And debt. Oh, my goodness. The UK currently owes, excluding bank bail-out costs, just under £1.2 trillion. That’s almost £40,000 per working person. In just five years the coalition government, on a so-called austerity drive, will add £700 billion to the national debt. That’s more than the combined total of every British government of the past 100 years. For all the talk of ‘fiscal cliffs’ and ‘debt ceilings’ in the US, President Barack Obama has overseen an administration that, in its first term, increased the national debt by 60%, adding $6 trillion. The first 41 presidents only managed $5 trillion combined.

Many of these things were unthinkable ten years ago, yet they are now part of our daily experience. A lot seems to be going wrong. Is this just an inevitable fact of life, or is it something else? I happen to think it’s something else. And that’s what this book is about. Many of our most fundamental institutions, social arrangements, economic policies and political ideas seem to be breaking down. They are either in acute crisis, or close to it. Things that we have taken for granted for decades – that a bank is a safe place to put money, that the NHS looks after its patients, or that European countries have left the conflicts of the Second World War behind them, for example – are now in doubt. If we are coming to some sort of boiling point, it’s essential to understand what the fundamental problems actually are and how they came about, otherwise there is the real danger that, misguidedly, we replace what we have with something worse – as happened with Fidel Castro’s great Cuban revolution, Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. ‘Only a crisis – actual or perceived,’ said economist Milton Friedman, ‘produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

I subscribe to George Orwell’s view that, ‘on the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.’ The problem, as I see it, is not so much individuals but systems. Accidentally or otherwise, our systems of government, finance and economics have been modified and manipulated and now no longer have the effects their originators intended; they have become entrenched, out of anyone’s control, and seemingly possible to change or remove. It feels like the West is an unstoppable train, hurtling down the tracks; but we are on the wrong tracks, going to the wrong place. Nothing seems to slow this train, let alone reverse it. It’s too big; it’s going too fast. But in this book I’m going to show you a simple method whereby the points on the railway – what Americans call ‘the railroad switch’ – can be changed.
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