Where Freedom stands now
Monday, August 15, 2016
America has forgotten that Small is Beautiful
I feel lucky to have lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. I never saw it coming. The bad guys in the Cold War seemed to have all the advantages and the abject grovelling of the West's politicians seemed to confirm Lenin's remark that "a capitalist will sell you the rope with which to hang him".
In Britain our Communist Party and many of our trade unionists and politicians were sympathetic to and in some cases in the pay of the Kremlin. The political game of those years seemed just as rigged as the Olympics in which naive amateur Westerners competed with drugged-up, pampered, full time Communist athletes.
My mother in law camped out at Greenham Common and claimed of the USA and USSR that "they're as bad as each other." She had at least visited Moscow with a Labour Party trip, seen the bare shelves in GUM and experienced the joys of Soviet service culture, so she was less enthusiastic than most of her leftist contemporaries. Having heard my Russian teacher's reaction in Moscow to my revelation that I had been a Maoist in my teens, I strongly suspect there were more true believing socialists in Britain than there ever were in Soviet Russia. "You actually believed in it?" she said. "No one here did!"
What were the chances of the Cold War ending as it did, given those circumstances?
Without the happy coincidence of the USA and UK producing the best leaders in their history at the same time, the views of the other Western leaders who dismissed them as fools and warmongers right up to the point of victory could have prevailed. Yes, the USSR would have foundered anyway because economic truth, always less attractive than fantasy, would have prevailed. But the West of the détente era would cheerfully have continued to sell grain and other essentials to feed its people and prop up its vile regime. Without Pope John Paul II, Lech Walȩsa (history's second most under-rated hero after the original and best Tom Paine), Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the Soviet Union might still be limping along.
I feel even luckier to have worked, as an international lawyer based in post-Communist Poland and Russia on the reconstruction of the countries of Central & Eastern Europe. I helped my clients provide facilities, infrastructure and housing that improved the lives of locals immensely. I was, in Marxist terms, a "running dog" of international capitalism and I could not be more proud of it. No socialist in history ever improved the lives of the people of any country on the scale that we did. When I visit today's Poland and remember the country I first saw in 1992, my heart sings.
After what I have witnessed in my life, I am as surprised as Matt Ridley in the linked article from The Times today that free markets are again out of favour. It frankly astonishes me that anyone sentient could still use the word "socialist" with approbation. And yet the Labour Party in Britain now has more members than all other political parties combined, precisely because it has returned to its socialist roots. Economic reality remains unpopular. For all the empirical evidence of 20th Century history, socialist fantasy retains its appeal — as witness the recent devastation of Venezuela, urged on by the ideological cretins of the Labour Party.
Yet all over the West (even the Land of the Free is "feeling the Bern") real world economics are still being dismissed with the Marxist pejorative "capitalism". And this by young people dressed, fed and equipped for their SJW campaigning with tablets, phones etc. provided, as Lenin predicted, by "capitalists".
It's often noted that Marxism has some characteristics of religion. True believers see everything through its prism. Facts don't disturb their convictions. The Satan of "capitalism" is at the root of all evil and the "God" of socialism is credited with every advance. What leftist ideology and theology really have in common I fear is that they both exploit the human weakness reported by Paul Simon in my favourite song, "The Boxer." As he wrote on a yellow legal pad in Queens all those years ago, "a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest".
The idea that humans can treat all their fellows as brothers and sisters and share with them as they would with their own family is appealing. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is a great slogan. So much more noble than the truer ones from Communist era Poland such as "standing up or lying down it's still a złoty an hour" or "if you're not stealing from the state you're stealing from your family'. The daily economic grind, particularly of the young setting out on their careers, is tedious. The temptation to envy those who are - for whatever reason - better off financially is close to irresistible for many. Most tellingly, perhaps, the temptation for politicians to pander to such weakness requires more morality to resist than anyone attracted to bossing others about is likely to have.
I am particularly struck by how profoundly we tribal humans experience the boundaries of the nation state. We simply refuse to learn lessons from the experience of other nations. Twenty years as an expatriate took off my national blinkers but now I am back I understand that my fellow Brits don't really accept the relevance of other peoples' history. My posh socialist friends in London seem to think Communism only failed because those shambolic Russians were mostly in charge of it. If I were inclined to their methods of debate I might call them racist. At least they have more excuse than young Poles, Czechs and Hungarians who are raising the red flag again. Don't they talk to their grandparents?
That's a long whinge and I apologise for it. The only real question is always "What to do?" I wish I had a simple suggestion but let's face it - the lure of simple ideas is our enemy not our friend. It may be the youth of American and Britain won't learn until Bernie or Jezza have had their way with them as Lenin, Mao, Castro and Hoxha had their way with their own peoples. But if we love them (and I love quite a few of them, not least the Misses Paine) we have to read widely to arm ourselves with arguments and be brave enough (even at the risk of being the golf club or family bore) of advancing them whenever we can.
Perhaps one lesson of Labour's situation is that our political parties are now highly vulnerable to "entryism". Cynical though all wise men must be about the motivations of party members and the politicians they serve, perhaps we should hold our noses and join? If enough classical liberals, aspirational working-class voters re-politicised by Brexit and plain old-school Thatcherites joined the Conservative Party, for example, perhaps the authoritarian social justice warrior who leads it might quake in her kitten heels? Its membership is so trivially small that it is far more vulnerable than Labour. UKIP is also making such a mess of itself post-Farage, that its members could surely be tempted away?
I am no pessimist. I have faith in our young people. They are every bit as clever as we were and have more historical data to work with. They will err (as we did in our day) and then life will teach them hard lessons. The job of the older generation that loves them is to make them more receptive.
You are too kind. Maybe we're both just right?
Posted by: Tom | Tuesday, August 16, 2016 at 02:35 PM
Yesterday I wrote the following "Reagan and Thatcher were the best political double act ever". Rather prophetic of me as in your article you more or less say the same thing. I could say that great minds think alike but I know it was pure coincidence and I know which mind is the greatest and it is not mine.
Posted by: Antisthenes | Tuesday, August 16, 2016 at 12:23 PM
Mankind is emerging from poverty at the greatest rate in human history. 100,000,000 souls a decade are graduating from subsistence to having disposable income. Yet in the West because "poverty" is measured in relative terms apparently inspired by Christ's words that "the poor are always with us" we are told that people living better material lives and having longer life expectancies than the rich in the 1960s are "poor".
Posted by: Tom | Tuesday, August 16, 2016 at 01:32 AM
Thank you for the welcome. Yes, whatever happened to "the end of history" eh?!
Posted by: Tom | Tuesday, August 16, 2016 at 01:18 AM
At the risk of sounding like a Marxist, I don't think real free market economics have been tried yet! I was advising international banks in the run up to 2008 and they were very far from being criminal enterprises. That's just a lazy smear by politicians to mask their own guilt. On the contrary the banks were struggling manfully (expending fortunes both on in house "compliance officers" and external advisors like me) to comply with lots of regulations. The problem was more that, once they'd complied, everyone (managment, regulators, shareholders, depositors) assumed all was well. Compliance was seen as the height of prudence, rather than a chore to get out of the way before addressing the real issues of debtor reliability and adequacy of security. There was a lethal combination of pressure to lend, the absence of the usual "safe" sovereign borrowers who were taking loans from China instead, and a false sense of security afforded by the supervision of the sort of easily outwitted, lazy losers who inevitably end up as regulators. And of course the usual moral jeopardy of their being safe in the knowledge that if it all went wrong their governments would prop them up. Scrap the regulations but remove the actual or implied guarantees and prudence (the absence of which was the problem) would return. I would have bailed out none of them. By the way all the loans I worked on performed (were repaid in full with the agreed interest). Why? Because they were to Russian entities about whom the banks were cautious enough to exercise sensible, prudent judgement. Also they were outside the Eurozone and therefore lacked the implied guarantee that the ECB would be directed by Germany to rescue them if it went wrong. If they had behaved the same in Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece the crisis would not have happened. Far more damage has been done by Germany using the ECB and the EU apparatus to save German banks active in such places from the consequences of their imprudence than would have been caused by sensible enforcement and writing off of bad debts. Greece has not really been bailed out. The German banks that overextended themselves there have.
Posted by: Tom | Tuesday, August 16, 2016 at 01:13 AM
First of all, I've only just found out you've returned to political blogging. Welcome back!
More relevantly to this post, I still remember how ecstatic I felt watching those TV reports of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then, in the following months, the utter failure failure of socialism in central Europe was laid bare. It denied people their liberty, pauperised them and destroyed the environment. To manage all three simultaneously is such a perverse outcome that I assumed it would be finished permanently as an ideology. Little did I know. I can scarcely believe that, little more than twenty-five years later, a lot of people are again touting it as a serious alternative.
Posted by: Schrodingers's Dog | Tuesday, August 16, 2016 at 12:47 AM
It certainly doesn't feel fake to many!
And we are not comparing modern UK to old East European Socialist countries; we are comparing it to the prosperity for most which was sold to us, but not felt now.
As for the banks, one may as well argue that because the police didn't stop the Krays soon enough, the police were responsible! The reality is the banks were effectively criminal enterprises, and took full advantage...and are still allowed to rob the people.
My wording on Corbyn was clumsy. It is Corbyn who is honest and principled: he says precisely what he is, a Socialist.
Of course, Socialism will fail. But the current version of capitalism has certainly failed...otherwise Corbyn wouldn't be so popular.
And next time we try capitalism, perhaps we might try to get it right.
Posted by: mickc | Monday, August 15, 2016 at 11:18 PM
The rising inequality meme is fake. It's SJW propaganda, based on "research" by Marxist academics. Even if it were true, inequality is objectively far worse in socialist countries where resources are allocated by a gangster class of politicians with the power not just to divert wealth to their friends but of life and death over their enemies. Ask anyone who lived in CEE during the Soviet times. There are inequities in modern Britain, yes, but they are largely the product of state sponsored crony capitalism. The value destroyed each year by regulatory barriers to market entry alone, for example, is incalculable. And the bankers may get the blame for 2008 but the perverse incentives and moral jeopardy created by regulators were the main causes. And what, in the name of all that is holy, is "honest and principled" about socialism? Corbyn's only solution to any problem is what, when done by anyone other than the state, would be armed robbery. At least Ronnie and Reggie Kray were honest and principled enough not to claim to be honest and principled. That alone makes them Corbyn's moral superiors.
Posted by: Tom | Monday, August 15, 2016 at 10:04 PM
I have a feeling looking around generally speaking by and large that the world has got massively wealthier in the last couple of decades. In material terms anyway and regardless of the growth in population.
Even the favela dwellers have wide screen TVs. The people circulating just out of shot in films of fly covered African children have smart phones stuck on their ears.
The choice and availability of "stuff" of all description thanks to the Chinese is staggering all over the planet. The so called refugees being conveyed to Europe from Africa seem able to find up to £12,000 each.
However the filthy rich have got filthier. Or have they? The wealth of medieval merchants and bankers in comparison to the rest was probably greater than now. And would a single footballer get £400,00 per week if the "unwashed" did not pay at the ticket window or pay the TV companies to watch the normal 500 channels of 24 hour sport? They have the disposable income.
And all thanks to capitalism.
I feel a lot of Googling coming on to try to dig out the facts and the "facts". Could be fun for a couple of weeks.
Just my two penneth and probably cheap at the price.
Posted by: Matt | Monday, August 15, 2016 at 08:57 PM
All of which is well and good....but many people have "lost out" in the current version of capitalism while a few have become colossally wealthy. There is no sense that the cake has got bigger, just a feeling that "the rich" have taken most of it. The "free market" is seen as "free for us to benefit" if you are one of the elite.
Couple this with the realisation that our "experts" and leaders lie to us shamelessly in order to benefit themselves and their pals, and you have the answer as to why Corbyn is politically attractive. He does not pretend to be other than he is...a Socialist. In other words, he is honest and principled.
As the Stranglers sang "somethin' gotta change". My feeling is that Corbyn will be that change.
I am a Thatcherite. I do not believe she intended what we now have. If it takes Corbyn to induce the necessary change, he will get my vote. He certainly is not the answer; he may just be the catalyst. In any event, May is neither.
Posted by: mickc | Monday, August 15, 2016 at 03:09 PM