Friday, November 13, 2009

The Berlin Wall and the fruits of liberty

20 years ago as of Monday, the citizens of East Berlin penetrated the Berlin Wall and gained access to the West. The wall's physical destruction would not be completed for weeks, but its power was broken. My paternal grandmother was born in Germany, usually spent a few months out of the year staying with her sister in West Berlin, and had relatives who had escaped from East Germany. She lived just long enough to see the Wall destroyed before passing away in March 1990. One of her relatives gave me a piece of the Wall, which I still have.

At Econlog, David Henderson has a post about how he explained the event to his 4-year-old daughter back in 1989. I recommend the whole thing, but what jumped out at me the most was a brief aside. Recounting his discussion with his daughter about all the East Germans crossing the border for the first time, Henderson remarks in passing:

The media reported a few days later that the candy shops in West Berlin had sold out.
Something about this little detail was very striking to me. In my experience, most discussions of Communist oppression focuses heavily on a few specific areas, and above all on censorship and control of ideas. (Things that directly impinge on the psychological and material interests of intellectuals and journalists, in other words.) The material deprivation caused by Communism does get some attention, but much less. Acknowledgment of it, not surprisingly, mostly involves the striking, dramatic, and visual- people standing in line for hours to buy bread, the dull grayness of Eastern Bloc cities.

What doesn't get much attention is the day-in, day-out lack of things that make life in a wealthy country like the United States more pleasant for the great majority of the population. I do not use scratchy, sandpaper-like toilet paper. Barring natural disaster or freakishly cold winter temperatures, I take it for granted that water will come out of my sink's faucet when I turn the knob. If my shoes are worn out or my clothes are torn up, I'm confident that replacements will be readily available for me to buy. On Halloween, like the one that just passed, candy is so cheap and plentiful that children can go door to door asking to be given candy for free. and most households will cheerfully oblige them.

There are few things more revolting to me than the spectacle of some hyperprivileged Western leftist who enjoys a degree of wealth and material comfort that would be the envy of almost every human being who has ever lived pontificating on the evils of "greed" and "consumerism" and praising some oppressive, impoverished socialist hellhole for its superior spiritual values or sense of community or committment to "social justice" or whatever, and this is a big part of the reason why. The difference between a country with a comparatively free market and the sort of society they defend isn't just a matter of whether people have colossal gas-guzzling vehicles or plasma TVs or "McMansions" or the opportunity to buy, to use the sort of epithets anticapitalists like to trot out, "cheap junk" and "stuff they don't need." (It's depressing how much antimarket rhetoric boils down to whining that other people don't share your personal tastes and dressing it up as moral indignation.) It's about whether people beyond some small political elite get to enjoy the innumerable little improvements to their daily lives that free markets provide with such ease and abundance that we don't even stop to think about them.

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real estate agent Toronto said...

Very well said. I enjoyed reading it a lot. Still, I can't believe it's been already 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I have been thinking about that amazing event quite a lot lately, even over here in Toronto. Cannot imagine the world today if the wall never fell.


mark said...

The US isn't free market!

When the US had a "free-market," that was before the Federal Reserve.

We haven't had a free market in America since before 1914.

Still, I hope to see freer markets in the future.

Tony said...

I could not agree more. I was born about 6 months after the wall fell and the thought of keeping people in with a wall under penalty of death is just incomprehensible to me.