This is one of A Series of Short Takes, although this one is not all that short. The usual disclaimers about politics apply. If you’re offended, that is your fault. Nobody is making you read this. But I very much hope you do, and that you’ll tell me in the comments what you’re thinking.
Are we a free people?
With the rise of the Tea Party (note: NOT an official political party), there’s been a great deal of discussion about freedom and liberty, and whether we have it here in the United States. Discarding the polemic on both sides, there is a real question here. What is freedom, and do we have it? Do we even want it?
I lived for two years in the People’s Republic of Hungary. I lived there as a foreigner, not as one of the people in the complete sense, but I didn’t have a huge number of perks on a day-to-day basis. I spoke the language, ate Hungarian food, rode the trams and the buses, lived in crappy apartments. But I had a car when I needed one, and I had a passport with a gold eagle on it, meaning I could do the one thing Hungarians could certainly not do – leave.
Communism is a terrible thing, and I’m not suggesting that the USA is anywhere near that point. But I consider what the average person in Hungary did on a daily basis, and it doesn’t seem to me that there was any terribly visible impingement. People got up, ate food (bad food, of which there was not very much, at least in the cities), went to work, took the tram to the pub, got drunk, came home and watched the sports on the TV, went to bed. In the morning, do it all over again. And it increasingly strikes me that if this is your life, then pretty much any governmental system short of naked tyranny will do you fine.
Orwell and Huxley showcased this in their seminal works 1984 (which I read in Hungarian while I was there – and man, that’s one dark book in Magyar) and Brave New World. In these books, most people are not even really inconvenienced by the totalitarian government. Propaganda aside, for most of the people I met, the communist government of Hungary was no big deal as far as the things they were likely to ever want to do.
Everyone hated the system. And I do mean everyone. The national mania was foci (soccer), but the national pastime was complaining about the government. The things most people complained about were lifestyle problems, bad healthcare, long waits for things, unavailability of goods. There were lots of things the average Hungarian could simply not get. Those things were there in country, but they were behind the metaphorical gates of the hard-money stores. If you wanted a decent television, for instance, you could only get one of those in the tourist shops that literally – by passport entry – were only for foreigners. You can imagine how well that went over.
Since that’s what most people focused on, that’s what we now pay most attention to when comparing economic systems. Does this one or that one produce more prosperity for the people in it? Having spent time in the poorest parts of several countries, I can tell you that I think free-market capitalism is better at increasing average wealth than any other economic system. I can also tell you that communism/socialism (because economically they are functionally identical) is better at alleviating actual squalor than other systems. If you want to constrain people to the median, if you’re seeking a society where everyone is slightly above average (yes, yes I know), then you have to look fondly at socialist systems.
Which apparently is what we are doing in the US, or, at least, the political class is (the people themselves seem less excited about the wholesale government rush to annex the entirety of the economy). There is a constant temptation to use the power of government to try to solve people’s economic problems. The trade-off seems so entirely worth it, doesn’t it? All we have to do is tax the big corporations, the wealthy and almost-wealthy, and we can make sure everyone has enough to eat and a place to stay. I mean, how many pools does a house need? How many gardens? Isn’t a 50,000 square foot house just ridiculously too big anyway?
If only it actually worked that way. What happens in communist societies, what happened in Hungary, is that there still were rich people, even obscenely rich people, only these people were all at the top of the government, instead of the top of Microsoft. If you read that and think, “see, it’s the same thing,” then you need to get out more. Bill Gates can clear a Spanish beach at the height of tourist season so that he and a handful of his cronies can frolic in peace, but if he does it, he has to pay the people to leave. Michelle Obama does it with nightsticks. And that’s only one difference. But that’s tangential to this post, so I’ll leave it.
What afflicted the people of Hungary most was not their poverty (which was slight) or even their relative poverty, vis-a-vis the Austrians right over the border. What afflicted them was not as much that they were prevented from doing things they actually wanted to do, but that they were prevented from thinking of things that they might want to do, because they knew they would never be allowed to do them. Socialism didn’t deprive them of food and housing (at least, not often). It deprived them of dreams and ambitions. When you have to register with the police every time you move, you don’t move much.
There were a lot of songs and flowers thrown at the idea that, in the 1980s, the Russians and the Americans were really all the same, that they really wanted the same things and we should be able to bury the hatchet and get along. This is a bald-faced, ridiculous lie. We did not want the same things. We were not able to want the same things. Free people – people that can leave – want terrifically different things than captives do. Free people can dream. Free people can wake up in the morning and decide to do something entirely different than the day before, and they don’t have to get anyone’s permission. They can move where they want. Go where they want. Be whatever they want.
In Hungary, you couldn’t do that. If you moved, you had to register with the police. You did not change jobs. There was no discussion of starting a business, because that was impossible (unless you wanted to do a one-man deal in the gray market, with no “employees”). You had your choice of shops, but there was not any difference between the products each was offering. If it was next-to-impossible to fall through the cracks into abject poverty, it was also next-to-impossible to rise above the lower middle class. As long as you had no ambition (or a conscience), you were constrained to be as close to average as it was possible for the machine to make you. It made the people of Hungary, my friends to this day, half-men. It made them less. It made them almost a different species.
They would ask me about my future, and I would outline a few things I wanted, and they would shake their heads at me, half-uncomprehending. They couldn’t process that I didn’t know or much care what I was going to do for work when I got back. I knew I could get a job. If I couldn’t, I could start a business. I could do anything I wanted anywhere I wanted. So I wanted things they couldn’t even understand.
But it is a law of humanity and nature that if you remove the possibility of failure you eliminate the chance for excellence. It is impossible for any governmental system to create a society where no one can fail, but the possibility for unbounded prosperity remains. As Helen Keller said, life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. Daring means, by definition, that there is a chance of botching it. Freedom requires the possibility of spectacular disaster. Adults relish this, even if they don’t realize it (and frankly, most don’t).
Many people could, it is true, spend 80% of every working day locked in an iron box 10′ square, because they almost never need to get up from their cubicle anyway. But they CAN get up, even if they don’t. A lot of the argument about giving up freedom in order to get security centers on our giving up things we weren’t likely to do anyway. I doubt I’d ever carry a gun onto a plane. But now I can’t, even if I want to. Heck, I can’t carry nail clippers or a bottle of water, things I actually DO want to do.
I doubt that I’d ever want to open a power plant. But if I did, I would now have to pay tens of millions of dollars and spend a decade just in regulatory paperwork before I ever turned a shovelful of dirt, much less produced an erg of power. If my business, which employs no one but me, moves even next door, it has to register with the police. Yes, it is the “nice” branch of the police known as the city planning and zoning department, but it is the police nonetheless. It is eerily similar to the situation I once knew 10,000 miles away.
The more we regulate, the more we tax, the more we try to get rid of the chances for failure, the less free we are, by definition. The less we permit people to do what they want, where they want, when they want, without having to get anyone’s permission, the less we are adults. The less we are men and women, and the more we are children. We are not yet to the point where I cannot imagine the things my father could, but this is only because my imagination lags my reality. The fact is that I cannot do whatever I like, even if what I like harms no one. I need permission from the government. Starting a business is not impossible, but it is difficult and getting more so. Hiring people is becoming increasingly complex and dangerous. Shortly, if we continue on the path tread currently, we will have similar economic conditions to the ones that obtained in Hungary 25 years ago, where there are three (really two) choices: work for the government, work for a large corporation functionally indistinct from the government, or run a solo shop with no official employees.
If all I want is to go to work, putter, head to the bar and get drunk, come home and watch the telly, then do it all again tomorrow, this system will work well. The majority of people will probably not find themselves terribly inconvenienced.
But woe to those that dream larger dreams. Freedom is not and rarely ever was a drink for the average man. Its loss will not be felt as more than a vague unease by the teeming masses. There will be, there already is, a lot of bashing on the people complaining about the blizzard of regulations and restrictions being daily levied on businesses. But this is like bashing tall people for complaining that the ceiling is too low, just because the average guy’s head still has clearance.
The sky may not be falling. But it is being lowered, and there are a lot of people having to hunch over. We are still more free in the US than anyone else, but make no mistake: we are no longer free. The question is, do we want to be?
Oh, I hope so.