I have just returned from a trip to the former East Germany and the current Czech Republic. Both were under communist rule for 40 years and they both, in different ways, are working toward the benefits and pitfalls of capitalism.
A tour guide in Prague summarized the situation well when he said, “Under communism, we had little freedom, but life was, in many ways, easy. Under capitalism, we have freedom and the responsibility that goes with freedom. Many long for the easy life, but most rejoice in having freedom.”
Under communism, people did not have the freedom to say what they thought or travel where they wished. But everyone had a job. It was against the law not to have a job. Everyone worked and the rewards were meager, but everyone had “enough to survive.”
The communist governments did not invest in infrastructure and the investments they did make were often on the cheap side. Hence many buildings today have been or should be torn down if they cannot be restored. Since the fall of the communist governments, major investments have been made in highways and public transit. These wise spending programs improve commerce and facilitate the interchange of people within and between nations.
Under capitalism, people do have the freedom to say what they please, but there should also be a responsibility to know and to speak the truth. More shocking than anything on the trip was the ignorance and blatant acceptance of nonsense by some of those from the United States in our traveling party.
It was not only that they were ignorant about Europe. They were ignorant about America and believed the most obvious lies about our federal government — the American flag no longer flies over the White House.
Under capitalism, as we know it, people are free to travel, in the manner and to the extent they can afford it. Freedom to improve one’s self by preparing for the type of job one prefers was limited under communism. Under capitalism, freedom means job seekers must be aware of what the market wants and what sacrifices they are willing to make for the jobs they want.
Communism made life easy because it removed the need to feel responsible for one’s self. It was the bureaucrats, the leaders, always someone else who was responsible for your condition in life.
Capitalism, as we know it, demands individual responsibility. Life is not easy. Economic and political currents toss our personal boats over uncertain waters.
Yet, personal responsibility seems to be the last thing many of us want. Many would like an easy life with the guarantee of a well-paid job. We don’t want the central control of a communist state, but we also don’t want the instability endemic to capitalism. We expect government to be all powerful, but we don’t want a powerful government.
This paradox, the desire for ease and the need for individual responsibility, is a universal characteristic not limited to former communist states. It applies here at home just as well.
Morton J. Marcus is an economist, writer and speaker formerly with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. He can be reached at email@example.com.