Commentary

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

On this 10th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, let’s start with one overwhelming fact: the totalitarian state is almost extinct. That is cause for jubilation. So many writers on this topic, many of whom mocked Ronald Reagan when he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” now simply assume that, well, everyone knew how bad communism was, so what’s the point of celebrating? It’s old news.

But not everyone did acknowledge at the time how unutterably evil communism was, and we should never forget that fact. The world is a safer, richer, more free and more moral place now that communism has been destroyed.

Just as important as celebration of the overthrow of entrenched evil is the attempt to understand how and why that system of evil fell. I spent most of 1989 and 1990 in Eastern Europe spreading the ideas of the free society — smuggling books, photocopiers and the like and holding seminars, lectures and meetings with dissidents, students and others who were beginning to confront socialism openly. I observed the fall of communism up close. This is what I learned.

The collapse of the communist ideal came about quickly; it surprised the leaders of the socialist states, not to mention almost all American observers. But the rot had set in many years before. I remember the Polish workers who complained, “Forty years of Socialism, and still no toilet paper!” But the ruling classes were in some ways even more demoralized, for it was they who traveled to the West and could compare our societies with theirs. Rich and powerful people who traveled to America or West Germany realized that their standard of living was lower than that of the average industrial worker in a Western country.

The whole rotten structure came tumbling down when people realized that the “real” communists among them were but a small minority. As they learned that, it became possible to express opposition to the system and not be singled out as the lonely dissident who could expect to be manacled and thrown down the memory hole.

The opposition grew geometrically, with each new voice in opposition making ever more voices possible. Perhaps the most effective slogan in East Germany was not “Down with the Communists!” but “Onto the street!” As the crowds of marchers in Leipzig swelled in November of 1989, more and more formerly quiet and submissive subjects realized that they could join in as well. As the chances of being beaten by the police dwindled with each new marcher, more joined the march. What only a few years ago had seemed to be an unbreakable ideological consensus turned out to be a sham. Once the fabric of collectivism began to unravel, it did so remarkably fast.

What lessons can friends of liberty learn from this? Let’s look at the apparently entrenched interventionist welfare states of the West. Consider the case of drug prohibition, a serious infringement on individual freedom and responsibility that has demonstrated terrible consequences: urban blight, crime, prosecutorial abuse and police corruption, and countless wrecked lives. Politicians and pundits fear to express doubts about the prohibitionist state because they think that others will accuse them of condoning drug use. But many of those others who are silent are silent because they fear the very same consequences of expressing dissident thoughts. Now that two governors have come out for drug policy reform — New Mexico’s Gary Johnson and Minnesota’s Jesse Ventura — other voices have started to be heard, including retired police chiefs, prosecutors, and others who realize that the war on drugs has failed. The more who express their honest views, the more likely it is that honest views will be heard. When narcotics are finally legalized, the movement is likely to happen much more rapidly than most would expect.

The same goes for Social Security privatization. Only a few years ago the scholars of the Cato Institute were almost alone in promoting privatization of the current bankrupt pay-as-you-go system. But as more people have begun to express the previously heretical thought that the federal government is not such a good manager of our retirement futures, it became easier for even more to express that heresy. In a remarkably short time, it wasn’t a heresy anymore. Now Social Security privatization is a part of the mainstream debate.

In ten years’ time, we may look back on the interventionist welfare state with a puzzled expression and say, “How did it last so long?”

Tom G. Palmer heads Cato University, the Cato Institute’s educational program on libertarian thought.