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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belarus Law Is a Return to A Failed Past

When a government has failed to reform its atrophied economy, when the nation's currency has collapsed and there is nothing to show for this pain because private enterprise continues to be stifled -- the answer, according to the government in Belarus, is to throw the nation's grandmothers into jail. That, taken to its absurd but logical extreme, is the only way to interpret Belarus' decision to begin locking up "speculators," who buy products at one price and then sell them at a profit. The law, officials in Minsk say, is not aimed at the babushkas who resell sausage and boots on the street. But the mere fact that the grandmothers of Belarus will now be breaking the law as they try to make enough money to get by is proof that there something is tragically wrong with this law. In Soviet days, speculators presented a threat to the state. The command economy sought to direct who should get what and at what price instead of relying on supply and demand to regulate the economy. But the command system was fatally flawed and produced a deficit economy in which there was perpetually more money than goods. To plug the holes in the dam and prevent it from bursting altogether the Soviet authorities believed that "speculators" who took advantage of the system's failures had to be stopped. The system crumbled regardless. The dam burst and the former Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its deformed economy. Throughout the former Communist world -- with the lingering exceptions of North Korea and perhaps Cuba -- this fact has been recognized. Most of the former socialist countries are going through a painful but necessary transition to a market economy. The government in Belarus, however, has decided that it knows better. The dam has already burst, yet in passing the law on speculators the government is busy pushing its fingers into holes in the rubble. It may be popular among a sizeable portion of the population to attack the amateur traders who drive up prices in a deficit economy, but it is pointless nonetheless. In fact, the new law would be laughable if it were not also unjust and disturbing proof that the government's fund of ideas to rebuild the Belarussian economy is bankrupt. This is a solution to the failings of the Belarussian economy that was applied for several decades and failed. In Russia too there is a deep well of resentment against speculators and the new class of biznesmeny. But as yet the government in Moscow has understood that to turn back, to punish citizens for doing precisely what the market demands of them, can only be counterproductive. There are enough mafiosi and corrupt bureaucrats to prosecute. Leave the babushkas alone.