Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Troubles of Transition

Tibor R. Machan

If you haven’t had the chance of visiting former Soviet bloc countries you will find it difficult to appreciate just how devastating an impact socialism has on human community life. Judging by the continued popularity of socialism among academic political philosophers, economists, and theorists, it is not likely that many of these folks have ever travelled to Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, the Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, or Albania.

Of course, even among these people the form of socialism championed has changed from the massively planned, top-down economy to what are labelled “market socialism,” “democratic socialism,” “communitarianism,” or “the third way”. Although the ultimate authority for economic decision-making in all of these would still rests with the government, in these systems governments graciously permit activities in many areas, including in commerce and business, that they do not directly oversee.

To get a good sense of the practical consequences of socialist economies, whatever the new label they have been given, it would be valuable for proponents to get a close look at what has happened in the former Soviet bloc countries. Even though nearly two decades have passed since the Soviet system has collapsed, the signs of socialism are everywhere. That’s
in part because these societies have not yet managed to generate the wealth that would be required so as to replace all the horrible leftovers of the socialist system with what a free and prosperous country can produce. Rows of dilapidated apartment houses, factory buildings, government offices, schools and the like are strewn across these countries with little evidence that purging them soon is very likely. After all, even though the Draconian type socialist planned economy is now part of the
miserable past in most of these places, a robust recovery has not yet taken place, so that people, companies, and communities could afford to get rid of the remains of the socialist era.

After all, even under miserable socialism people had to live someplace, tried to get some work done, approximated some measure of education of their children, farmed, manufactured and so forth, however poorly and inefficiently. And having invested in building their places of residence and work and play with the little wealth they had available, it is not practical to simply destroy it all and start from scratch.

But this is only one obstacle to a serious recovery from the grand Soviet socialist experiment, one that a great many of the academics in the West eagerly supported. There is also the fact that in most of these countries the old communists and socialists are still very active in the political arena. Unlike the Nazis, the communists were not deactivated after their
system came a cropper. And given how unprepared the non-communists and non-socialists in those countries were for guiding their countries toward a substantially free society, these old-liners are still often in leadership positions.

Indeed, in Hungary, Bulgaria and elsewhere they have managed to get elected to lead the government, mainly by frustrated citizens. Some of these are nostalgic for the “good old days” of socialist security the devastating consequences of which they still haven’t fully grasped. Some of them were, of course, part of the old system and still actually wish for it to come back. (When I recently visited Gori, the town in Georgia
where Joseph Stalin was born, I saw the huge statue of him still fully intact, alongside a museum in his honour that I was told has a steady stream of admiring visitors, mostly from Russia!)

If you add to all this the fact that a great many Western advisors to these former Soviet bloc countries preach not the virtues of a fully free society but a variety of reconstituted versions of socialism, it becomes pretty clear why there is such slow progress evident throughout the region. Rent seeking—which is to say, using the government for purposes of obtaining benefits for which other people must pay with their labour and
other resources—is of course the norm in many Western countries, including the United States of America (which is actually quite popular with most of the citizens of these former Soviet bloc countries). So what the West's leaders preach to the leadership in these former Soviet bloc countries is itself more of an impediment rather than assistance in the direction of full
development and liberation.

Just imagine if someone who has been felled by some devastating illness tried to recover by getting small dosages of both good and bad medicine. Such a person’s recovery would take a long time, if indeed it would be likely at all. That is just the situation with many of the countries of the former Soviet empire. Which is a sad prospect, indeed.

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