Last spring, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation of Fairfax, Virginia, invited me to participate in two conferences in Costa Rica. One conference was to celebrate the inauguration of a new Costa Rican libertarian think tank named INLAP. The other was a conference of 1,000 international business people who were gathering to make free-market recommendations to the international negotiators of a new free-trade agreement.
It has been almost 20 years since I have spoken Spanish on a regular basis. So, in order to get my Spanish up to snuff, I decided to leave two weeks early to attend an intensive, language-submersion course at the Forester Instituto in San José, the capital of Costa Rica.
The Spanish course consisted of six hours of Spanish conversation every day. During the four-hour course in the morning, there were two students and one professor. In the two-hour afternoon class, it was only the professor and I. The morning class consisted of grammar, vocabulary, and conversation about specific matters. Periodically, a libertarian issue would arise — such as the pollution problems in the large cities of the world — and I would have an opportunity to give a libertarian perspective. This would inevitably stir up a somewhat spirited discussion with the other student, a very nice woman from Haiti named Gerli, and with the teacher, a charming Costa Rican woman named Laura, neither of whom quite shared my libertarian views.
The first day I entered my afternoon class, a young instructor named Adriana introduced herself and placed several copies of the Spanish edition of Reader’s Digest in front of me. She asked which article I would like to discuss. I responded, “None of them. I want to spend our time discussing libertarianism.” She appeared somewhat surprised and told me that she had never heard of the libertarian philosophy.
The great libertarian Frank Chodorov used to say that our job was not to make individualists but rather to find them. I think I succeeded in that endeavor with Adriana. When I asked her to describe how people in Costa Rica perceive their government, she responded, “People here see government as their parent. They expect the government to provide them with everything — education, health care, housing, and so forth. There is a terrible dependency among the Costa Rican people on their government, which has sapped their strength and independence.”
I asked her about the education system. She said, “The public schools treat every child as if he were the same as every other child. The individuality of the child and his love of learning is destroyed by the bureaucratic system that pervades public schooling in Costa Rica.”
I asked her about poverty in Costa Rica. She said even though Costa Rica has one of the highest standards of living in Central America, there was still terrible poverty, especially on the outskirts of San José. Here, people who had migrated from the countryside were living in shacks, and many of them were unemployed and barely surviving.
I asked her about solutions and she wasn’t quite sure how to answer that one. I told her that my solutions might surprise her. She said, “Try me.” I told her that I was in favor of abolishing all public schooling and gave her the reasons. Quickly processing my reasoning, she said: “I have never considered this before but I do believe you are right.”
That was the beginning of a wonderful two-week odyssey in exploring ideas on liberty in Spanish. The rest of the time I was not so quick to provide Adriana with reasons for my solutions, wanting her to figure them out. One day, she arrived in class and said, “I had a terrible headache last night trying to figure out why minimum-wage laws hurt the poor. Give me the answer!” Another time, she came in and said, “You said that the real question is not ‘What are the causes of poverty?’ but rather ‘What are the causes of wealth?’ I have concluded that you are right. So, what are the causes of wealth?”
This last question, of course, holds the key to the profound poverty that afflicts the people at the bottom of the economic ladder in Costa Rica as well as other places all over the world. And there is definitely poverty and struggling in Costa Rica, even among the middle class. Each time I rode the bus to school, I spoke with people about their lives. Inevitably, they would tell me how difficult it was to make ends meet.
Everyone is required to send his children to school. Most parents, of course, send their children to public schools (including one named after Franklin D. Roosevelt). Every student is required to wear a uniform consisting of a white shirt and blue skirt or trousers. One Costa Rican told me that, despite two jobs, he could not afford to buy more than one uniform for each of his three children. If the white shirt became soiled during the day, the mother would wash it and hang it to dry for use the next day. If it rained, then the child would not go to school because the government authorities do not permit students to attend classes without a uniform.
The family with whom I lived — Rodolfo and Denia and their two teenage children, Pablo and Laura — had been assigned by the institute. They were a delightful, friendly, middle-class Costa Rican family whose friendly rule for me was: “No English!” Everyone immediately accepted me as part of the family. They gave me a key to the house, furnished me wonderful meals, and would always stop whatever they were doing to converse with me.
All this despite the fact that I was paying a very small amount of money for room and board. Why do they go to so much trouble and expense to accept boarders for such a relatively small amount of money? Rodolfo and Denia told me that the Costa Rican middle class had suffered the ravages of inflation during the past several years and that the middle class was struggling to maintain their standard of living. They themselves needed the extra money in order to keep their children in private school.
During most of my conversations with people, there seemed to be at least an implicit recognition that their own government was the cause of their economic problems. Of course, I would always break the ice in conversations by saying that I was from Washington, D.C., the capital of the biggest thieves in the world. People loved it, and immediately began competing with me as to whether their political thieves were bigger than ours. One guy said to me: “You wouldn’t believe our politicians here. Every election, they approach us and kiss us on the cheek. Then, they go home and wash their lips with soap because they’ve had to kiss poor people.” I responded: “You’re lucky. Our politicians don’t wash after they do it.”
It seemed like the people who were struggling to make ends meet were the ones who were most receptive to libertarian ideas. I hired a taxi driver named Luis to take me to see the volcanoes in the surrounding countryside. He was a very friendly guy who had worked (illegally) in Chicago for a year as a young man and was now politically active in a leftist political party in Costa Rica. Like so many others, he too had a second source of income; every day, he would wake up at 4 a.m. to bake pies that he would deliver to bakeries on his taxi route.
As we were driving along, I asked Luis about the drug war. He said, “The drug problem is getting bad in Costa Rica because the drug dealers are increasing using the country as a conduit. The government is going to have to fight harder to keep them out.” A few minutes later, he asked for my opinion. I said, “I believe we should end the war on drugs and legalize all drugs.” He exclaimed, “Are you crazy?” I just smiled and changed the subject. A half hour later, he said, “Okay, tell me why.” I explained the reasons. After thinking about it, he said, “I think you might be right.”
The following weekend, Luis told me that a friend of his was talking about the drug problem in Costa Rica. Luis said to him that, in his opinion, drugs should be legalized and told him why. “I even told him about Al Capone and Prohibition,” Luis said to me. After the discussion, his friend said, “Luis, I think you might be right.” Ideas have consequences!
One weekend, I traveled on a somewhat harrowing bus ride high into the mountains to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. Located along the Continental Divide and consisting of 10,500 hectares, this is one of the most outstanding wildlife sanctuaries in the world. Among the wildlife we saw was a famous, beautiful bird called the quetzal. (When the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortés initially landed in Mexico, the Aztec emperor Montezuma believed that Cortés was actually the god Quetzalcoatl, who had been named after the legendary bird.)
Most important, Monteverde is privately owned and preserved, bursting the environmental myth that only politicians and bureaucrats can be trusted to take care of the environment. Our guide, Sergio, was an independent contractor rather than an employee of the preserve. Yet he was as concerned with maintaining the pristine quality of the preserve as if he were an owner. Seeing a tourist lighting a cigarette, Sergio asked him to put it out, explaining that smoking was not permitted in the park. He told us how he had once had a person arrested for collecting tarantulas in the park with the intention of selling them on the outside. He also told us that while in the government parks, thousands of tourists were trampling the natural habitat, Monteverde, on the other hand, had a limit of 130 people in the park at any one time. As a private preserve, it could set any rules it wanted for the preservation of its environs.
People in Costa Rica are the friendliest and nicest people you could ever meet. Everyone makes you feel like his home is your home. And I was struck by their tremendous generosity: a beggar would periodically come onto the bus and ask for money; and people who were obviously poor themselves would reach into their pockets to help.
In the midst of poverty and struggling, there is hope that Costa Ricans will experience a major libertarian breakthrough. There is obviously a very healthy distrust of politicians and bureaucrats among the citizenry. Moreover, the newly elected president of Costa Rica, Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, who spoke at the INLAP conference, is a devotee of Friedrich Hayek. The founder of INLAP, an energetic libertarian named Rigoberto Stewart, founded the Libertarian Movement political party in Costa Rica several years ago. The party recently had a major electoral success with the election of a member to the national congress, a Harvard-educated libertarian named Otto Guevara Guth, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and visiting with.
If the citizenry of Costa Rica were to discover that the secret to the creation of wealth is the dismantling of their socialistic welfare state, along with the tremendous burden of taxation required to fund it, there is a good possibility that they could lead the world, including the United States, to economic freedom.