November 17, 2014
On November 17, 1989, the people of Czechoslovakia took a decisive step away from the nanny state. The nanny state in Czechoslovakia was one that sought to control all aspects of life.
Those aspects included: what a child studied, what career options a person would have, if an artist or writer would be allowed to participate in official culture, where a person would live and with whom, if a person would travel, how many imported purchases a person would have access to. These were directly controlled by the state, apparent for all to see. Those are just a few examples among the many that existed.
Controlling an Entire Economy
There were many other controlled aspects of a person’s day-to-day life that were not recognized during totalitarian times to be directly caused by the failures of the state, but which certainly were failures of the state and are failures that are easily repeated wherever a state sees it best to control an economy.
In Czechoslovakia this included tangerine shortages that left tangerines as an exciting, hard to get, exotic St. Nicholas Day present for children each December 6. The popularity of the tangerine as a special gift is an indicator of how relatively impoverished Czechoslovakia was.
This included underwear shortages that left people walking around in tattered rags for underpants, causing young men embarrassment when they found themselves in a romantic encounter that they had no untattered underwear for (as depicted by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being).
This included condom shortages that left abortion as a multiple occasion de facto method of standard birth control used by many for family planning.
This included doctor shortages that made a small bribe of a bottle of alcohol or something similar an almost mandatory aspect of rudimentary medical care.
This included the disruptive and burdensome attitude that eventually became commonplace that anyone who did not steal from the state was stealing from their own family. The economy was largely forced into the incapable hands of the state and as many reasonable and entrepreneurial people took to one of the only methods of social advancement – pilfering – in order to provide for the family, this system became an even greater drain on the economy.
This included the lack of economic development that put Czechoslovakia further and further behind the freer parts of the world year after year. It’s the easy to miss issue of the Seen and the Unseen that Frederic Bastiat and Henry Hazlitt so effectively demonstrate. Simply put, it can be hard to recognize that missed opportunities are occurring around you. Every Slovak today was in a sense betrayed by every ancestor who allowed a less free Slovakia to exist. And every Slovak today is in a sense given a gift by every ancestor who allowed a more free Slovakia to exist.
The Good in Communism
Depending on what your definition of “good” is, there were certainly unintentional good aspects of communism. Not one of those good aspects that I can think of have a thing to do with greater personal freedom.
Communism was 40 years of individual Czechoslovaks having to deal with unnecessary burden and hardship in life caused for them by their government that insisted it was acting in their best interest. The concept of “the people” was treated as the ultimate authority and that authority was used as effective propaganda, yet it was a government that sought to take power out of the hands of the people with each passing day.
To have lived in such a time, to have realized that government was doing the opposite of what it claimed, and to have watched so many around you obediently agreeing must have been infuriating. It’s infuriating enough for me to live in the much freer United States, where I thought the arguably worst government in US history in January of 2009 was coming to an end, only to realize that things could actually get worse.
The Unaware West
Today, even in the most free market Western countries governments participate in massive economic intervention, as if the poignant lessons of Soviet-style controlled economies are somehow isolated to the Eurasian landmass. The government’s intervention is praised in the West by those who do not have a well-read understanding of markets from multiple economic perspectives and tend to confuse the concept of a free market with crony capitalism. In allowing the debate to be defined by people with such a poor understanding of free markets, the West denies itself of what may be its most significant birthright: the unfettered human achievement that comes when freedom is allowed to exist.
Medical care, pharmaceuticals, and education are three excellent examples where the West insists on hindering itself by undermining the market. In doing so, it almost certainly punishes the weakest members of society. Just as the statists of Czechoslovakia in the last century claimed to act on behalf of the people while acting to their detriment, the statists of the West in this century follow in those footsteps.
Personal computing, telecom, the Internet, and burgeoning technologies are areas where technology has moved with such dramatic creativity that governments have been nearly incapable of restraining the markets. Every year the government regulated industries become less effective and more expensive while the market regulated industries become more effective and less expensive. Economists for several hundred years have pointed this dynamic out.
In politics, the wise pay attention to what a person does and to ignore what a person says. Aware of this, governments have a tendency to tell lies to those foolish enough to listen.
Many lies are told every day by many politicians and the governments that they run. One lie from history is that socialism is a government for the people and that reaching the end goal of a communist society is a great victory for the people. The two are certainly the opposite of what they claim to be.
The victory of the people, the victory of the individual took place on November 17, 1989 when a relatively small group of people in Czechoslovakia started events in motion that could not be stopped if they tried and brought an end to communist rule of their lands. By the end of the year, a dissident imprisoned many times by the regime would sit in Prague Castle (Vaclav Havel) and a beloved reformer long ago chased from power by the Soviets in 1968 and relegated literally to the backwoods of Bratislava would be chairman of the federal legislature (Alexander Dubcek). Many small victories for the people continue to take place every day in the lives of millions of Slovaks and Czechs as they exert their wills freely over their own individual lives.
Skepticism towards any political and economic system is understandable in Central Europe. There have been some unpleasant attempts at using government and economics to control the people. Many look back at 1989 critically and wonder if the right decisions were made during the transitions. Some even look at the time before that with rose colored glasses and long for what was. Some prospered in the old system and miss it. While the old system promised comfort to some, it was not a system of individual freedom.
Greater Individual Freedom
It is impossible to look at Czechoslovakia circa 1988 and to say it was a greater place for individual freedom than the Slovak and Czech Republics circa 2014. The potential of the individual is less restrained today, as a result the wealth in the hands of the people is greater today, a boy or girl from Slovakia can grow up to be a very big deal in the world in a way that once could not have happened, the world can today be that person’s oyster. A Slovak citizen in this time is without a single excuse of why his life dreams are unable to be fulfilled.
Twenty five years later, despite the many difficulties that freedom has brought, and the growing pains from transitioning out of the cradle to grave welfare system, the Velvet Revolution that historians tie to this date – November 17 – has proven to be a great victory for the people and a great victory for individual freedom. While the communists long lauded themselves as the ones fighting for the people, it was their demise throughout Central Europe that was the greater victory for the people.Each day statists and individuals do battle in this place where East meets West and overwhelmingly it is the spirit of 1989 and not the spirit of 1948 that wins the battle. From the West (sadly) and from the East (as can be expected) these people face regular encouragement to backslide into their statist past. Many, however, maintain a firm resolve. The most simple village farmer in this part of the world understands how a central bank works better than many economics students in the West and the least of the economics students of this land understand the breadth of free market economics seemingly better than the handpicked central bankers of the West. The spirit of 89 was alive and well here long before 1989 and remains a decisive uptrend. From this land, the West has much to learn.
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.