I have observed two recent events that seem to be unrelated. Yet, as I think about them, one has much to do with the other.
On one hand, the news lately has been filled with stories about a large number of people congregating on Wall Street in New York City. Some refer to themselves as if they were a coherent group called “Occupy Wall Street.” The news media has christened them, alternatively, as “Wall Street Occupiers” or “Wall Street Protesters.” I’ll just call them the “protesters.”
Interviews I’ve seen on television indicate the protesters are not a coherent group at all, but represent a diverse range of complaints. However, one thread runs through all the interviews and news accounts. These people hate capitalism and want to put an end to it.
The other event is personal to me. It involves a German movie that I saw the other day called “Goodbye, Lenin!” The movie is the story of a family living in East Germany shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was no capitalism in East Germany. In one scene, a large group of demonstrators (having a far different view of the world than the American protesters) march toward the wall to show their desire for freedom.
While this gathering is being beaten, hosed and arrested by police and soldiers, the mother suffers a heart attack and goes into a coma.
The mother’s coma lasts for eight months before she reawakens, and during that time the wall comes down, Germany is united and capitalism comes to East Germany. When the mother awakens, East Berlin has stores filled with consumer goods, ordinary people own modern, efficient automobiles, anyone can easily travel in or out of the country and government officials no longer control minute aspects of every citizen’s life. Her family tries to shield her from all these changes for fear the shock will bring on another heart attack, and their efforts are the thread that holds the plot together.
But the real substance of “Goodbye, Lenin!” is the glimpse it gives of life in a society that, like the protesters, abhors capitalism. Yes, in a controlled economy, people have jobs. They get paid in currency that is worthless outside the country’s borders, and not worth much within them, because there isn’t much of anything to buy. (People with high government jobs or party positions were granted waivers on owning hard currency and also allowed to buy things that most people could not obtain. They were also allowed to travel to the West, where they could buy things and bring them home. If they could get their families out, they often defected to the West and stayed there.)
In East Germany, everyone was also guaranteed free medical care. The quality was poor, the facilities were antiquated and drab, the technology was outdated, and medicines available in the West were not available to the average person. Waiting time for treatment of anything but emergency services would seem intolerable to us.
In this non-capitalist paradise, government officials and party members received special treatment. Still poor by American standards, but better than what was available to the man on the street.
When the mother begins to notice some of the changes going on, including Germans from the West starting new businesses, her family invents the fiction that the communist government has benevolently granted them the right to immigrate to East Germany. The rest of us know the truth: As soon as the Berlin Wall came down, East Germans couldn’t wait to leave. Unlike the Wall Street protesters, people who had been forbidden to enjoy capitalism could not wait for a chance to take advantage of it.
The day after I saw “Goodbye, Lenin!,” I read a news account saying that Hugo Chavez, the socialist dictator of Venezuela, has decided to “nationalize” valuable tourist properties on the Venezuelan island of Los Roques. In socialist parlance, “nationalize” means to take someone’s property from them and give it to the government, while paying the owners little or nothing for it.
People who disagree with Chavez tend to disappear or wind up in prison. Chavez does not believe in capitalism, and presumably his behavior is the kind of thing that our homegrown protesters want to see in our country. Venezuela is further evidence, if more were needed, that in the absence of economic freedom, there is no freedom.
One wishes that the protesters in New York, and now in other cities in America, would have the opportunity and the inclination to watch “Goodbye, Lenin!” or would take time to consider what has happened in Venezuela since capitalism has been replaced by socialism.
And what about the American labor union leaders who are now providing financial and moral support to the protesters? They, if anyone, should understand what happens to organized labor in a controlled society. The only jobs will be government jobs, and there will certainly be no union bosses.
As for me, I have been to places where capitalism is discouraged, where corporations are government owned and where profits (“greed”) are a crime. I have also been in free countries, and, at least up until now, the United States has been the best of them. One could say I have seen capitalism and I have seen socialism, and capitalism is better.