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 evilcommunism was, and we should never forget that fact. The world is a safer,richer, more free and more moral place now that communism has beendestroyed.

Just as important as celebration of the overthrow of entrenched evil is theattempt to understand how and why that system of evil fell. I spent mostof 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 werebeginning to confront socialism openly. I observed the fall of communismup close. This is what I learned.

The collapse of the communist ideal came about quickly; it surprised theleaders of the socialist states, not to mention almost all Americanobservers. But the rot had set in many years before. I remember thePolish workers who complained, "Forty years of Socialism, and still notoilet paper!" But the ruling classes were in some ways even moredemoralized, for it was they who traveled to the West and could compare oursocieties with theirs. Rich and powerful people who traveled to America orWest Germany realized that their standard of living was lower than that ofthe average industrial worker in a Western country.

The whole rotten structure came tumbling down when people realized thatthe "real" communists among them were but a small minority. As theylearned that, it became possible to express opposition to the system andnot be singled out as the lonely dissident who could expect to be manacledand thrown down the memory hole.

The opposition grew geometrically, with each new voice in opposition makingever more voices possible. Perhaps the most effective slogan in EastGermany was not "Down with the Communists!" but "Onto the street!" As thecrowds of marchers in Leipzig swelled in November of 1989, more and moreformerly quiet and submissive subjects realized that they could join in aswell. As the chances of being beaten by the police dwindled with each newmarcher, more joined the march. What only a few years ago had seemed to bean unbreakable ideological consensus turned out to be a sham. Once thefabric of collectivism began to unravel, it did so remarkably fast.

What lessons can friends of liberty learn from this? Let's look at theapparently entrenched interventionist welfare states of the West. Considerthe case of drug prohibition, a serious infringement on individual freedomand responsibility that has demonstrated terrible consequences: urbanblight, crime, prosecutorial abuse and police corruption, and countlesswrecked lives. Politicians and pundits fear to express doubts about theprohibitionist state because they think that others will accuse them ofcondoning drug use. But many of those others who are silent are silentbecause they fear the very same consequences of expressing dissidentthoughts. Now that two governors have come out for drug policy reform --New Mexico's Gary Johnson and Minnesota's Jesse Ventura -- other voiceshave started to be heard, including retired police chiefs, prosecutors, andothers who realize that the war on drugs has failed. The more who expresstheir honest views, the more likely it is that honest views will be heard.When narcotics are finally legalized, the movement is likely to happen muchmore rapidly than most would expect.

The same goes for Social Security privatization. Only a few years ago thescholars of the Cato Institute were almost alone in promoting privatizationof the current bankrupt pay-as-you-go system. But as more people havebegun to express the previously heretical thought that the federalgovernment is not such a good manager of our retirement futures, it becameeasier 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 ofthe 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?"