Thursday, August 09, 2007

Armenian Impressions

Tibor R. Machan

Tsakhkadzor, Armenia. This winter sports complex has some of the most impressive terrain for winter athletics outside of New Zealand and Switzerland. Except that it is nearly in total tatters. Apart from some recently installed modern structures, this mountain city is merely a shadow of what it could be.

While giving my lectures to about 25 young people in this (for me) remote part of the globe, I had one recurring thought, albeit mostly a fantasy: Import as many Swiss here as there are Armenians living in the region, let them take over every aspect of social and economic life and see the place transformed into, well, a replica of Switzerland. Yes, the basic ingredients are all here. Stunning mountains and rapids cutting across them all; weather that has all the variety of what is available in Austria or Switzerland. But—and this is a really big “but”—there is no infrastructure and development whatsoever comparable to that you get in those European countries far to the west of the country.

I was driven to Tsekhkadzor by car—well, by two cars, actually; one took me to the border between Georgia and Armenia, the other to the sports town itself. That’s because taking a car across this border amounts to a bureaucratic nightmare. Even doing it as we had to—namely, walking across the bridge that connects the two countries—amounted to a truly annoying experience. The guards who stood about the shacks where passports and visas are being examined cared not a wit about facilitating the traffic. They were every bit like the border guards used to be in the old Communist countries—in the Soviet era Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary or Albania. They treated us all as if the last thing on earth they wanted to do is to have to provide the service they are officially there to provide, which is to enable folks to move between the two countries.

Of course, the roads on which one travels inside Armenia are a disaster. Potholes everywhere, the size of small craters; cattle and sheep blocking traffic throughout the journey, trash by the roadside, you name it. And there are virtually no facilities—no places to eat, to stop to rest, nothing except a few dilapidated buildings that threaten to collapse as one makes use of them.

Armenia was part of that wondrous experiment with Soviet socialism but even then it got to short end of the stick, judging by how it looks now. Its current wows are too complicated to even hint at here. Yet the countryside is often stunning, if only one ignores the parts human beings have added to it all.

And talk about pollution! If only some of our Western environmentalist could take a few lessons from how an essentially state managed country deals with waste and soot! They might start becoming more sensible about trusting government to solve environmental problems. The tragedy of the commons stares one in the face everywhere.

Yet, yet, the young people who sat around the conference room where we discussed elements of classical liberalism and libertarianism were bright and surprisingly interested in how a free system of law and public policy would approach the problems faced in human community life. Their questions, objections, speculations, and such were every bit if not more intelligent than those of their Western university mates.

For most of them, of course, the idea that individuals are sovereign, not the government or state, was radical; its implications even more so. But they understood, often from elementary personal examples, what it means to take charge of one’s life and to deal with other people with the full recognition that they, too, are in charge of theirs. They were initially incredulous about the classical liberal demythologization of states and governments but once they grasped that those were all but human being posing as superior to the rest, they got it pretty quickly.

Still, I left the region without being able to shake that fantasy, of importing a few million Swiss and letting them loose on Armenia. That would turn out to be some country!

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