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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'One Man With a Plow, 10 Men With Spoons'

This fall, my wife and I decided to take a sabbatical from our Moscow jobs to do a little teaching in Kazakhstan -- I to the staff of the National Bank, she to students of Almaty State University. We spent a recent Saturday riding in the mountains with a Russian friend who is trying to make a little business of renting out his horses to supplement the $20 his wife brings home each month from her job as a junior scientific researcher.

The weather was perfect, the mountains spectacular. Steep trails and strong but short-legged mountain ponies made for a slow pace with lots of time to talk. But just a short way up the road from the farm where we started, we were interrupted by a man who leaned out of his jeep to speak angrily to our friend.

"What's this, are you at it again?" he said, or words to that effect. "I've warned you, you're going to get in trouble."

Our friend waved him off with an invitation to mind his own business, but he was clearly upset. The man in the jeep turned out to be the director of the local forest service who, without regard to any privatization documents or legal title, is able to behave as if he "owns" this little corner of Kazakhstan. The public roads, the mountain views, even the clear air, I suppose, are "his" in the sense that what he says goes, and there is no judge or sheriff to appeal the matter to if you don't like it.

The forester, it turned out, had invited our friend to join him as a "partner." The proposed terms were that if the forest service got a big cut -- maybe 90 percent -- of the modest fee our friend charges, he could keep the rest to help pay for hay. He and his clients could then ride the public roads without being hassled.

The proposal had not been accepted.

Shortly before, our friend had been riding with another American horseman from Almaty who runs one of several international programs to support small business in the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS. It appeared that this program could possibly arrange a loan to buy better saddles, advertise the business and rent a cellular telephone to keep in touch with town. But our friend was worried about looking too prosperous.

"We have a saying," he told me, "Odin s soshkoi, desyat s lozhkoi -- "One man with a plow, 10 men with spoons."

In his case, the 10 with spoons included not just the man in the jeep, but those who controlled the telephone line, without which it is hard to do business; those who controlled where hay could be cut; those who controlled whether land could be bought or only leased; and so on.

As we lunched beside a mountain lake while the horses grazed, I tried to think of an American proverb or fable to compare with "one with a plow, 10 with a spoon." What came to mind was the story of the Little Red Hen. For readers who might not know it, the story goes like this:

The Little Red Hen finds a grain of wheat. She could eat it right away, but instead, she decides to plant it and have bread at harvest time.

"Who will help me plant the wheat?" she asks.

"Not I," says the cat. "Not I," says the dog.

So she plants it herself.

When the wheat is ripe, she asks, "Who will help me cut the wheat?" Again, no one will help, and the same again when she asks who will help her mill the flour and bake the bread.

When the bread is out of the oven, the hen asks, "Who will help me eat the bread?"

"I will," says the cat. "I will," says the dog.

But the Little Red Hen says, "No, I planted it myself, I cut it myself, I baked it myself, now I will eat the bread myself." And she does.

I thought about this story all the way back down the mountain. What's the moral here? That he who does not work shall not eat? That's part of it. That helping one another is a virtue, and a virtue by no means at odds with self-interest? That's part of it, too.

But the real moral -- at least`this is how I, as an economist, read the story -- is this: If the Little Red Hen hadn't been pretty sure she could eat the bread herself after she planted it, cut it, and baked it, she would just have eaten the grain of wheat on the spot, and there would have been no bread and no story at all.

This gets us back to post-Soviet reality. If the story of the Little Red Hen offers any clue as to why America is rich while Kazakhstan and Russia are poor, I don't think it has anything to do with the allegation that there aren't enough Little Red Hens here.

I have sometimes heard the claim that Stalin's purges wiped out the entrepreneurial gene, but I think that's nonsense. There are plenty of entrepreneurs here. Our friend with the horses is one of them. So are the students at our Moscow business school, who spend long hours studying at night to earn a degree and then work harder still and take great risks to start a firm of their own or help a small company grow large in the tough Russian environment.

Even the thousands of grandmothers who tend their raspberries in the hope of making some jam to sell at the market are entrepreneurs.

Neither can we attribute America's prosperity to a lack of lazy cats and dogs there. America prides itself on a tradition of volunteer organizations, but in practice, many Americans are happy to send their children to play on a volunteer-led sports team while they themselves sit home watching television.

Instead, the real lesson of the Little Red Hen is that more bread gets baked when the baker has the assurance of keeping at least a good part of the loaf. America has taxes, of course, but the state doesn't take the whole loaf, and the amount of money paid in taxes is reasonably predictable and subject to appeal.

However little Americans like taxes, paying them is less painful because there are not nine more men with spoons or jeeps or black leather jackets lining up for a cut behind the tax man.

America's aid effort in the CIS is now winding down, and where purely economic projects are concerned, now is perhaps the time. But in one area, an enormous amount of work remains to be done. That is the work of building a society of laws and secure property rights in each of the newly independent states. Without this, no matter how much foreign aid and investment is poured in, the wheat will never sprout, and the bread will never get baked.

I hope this is the last area where American aid is cut. After all, helping others is just long-run self-interest, as the cat and the dog learned in the story of the Little Red Hen.

Edwin G. Dolan is president of the American Institute of Business and Economics, a not-for-profit American business school in Moscow. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.