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Monday, January 1, 1990

What We Should Teach the Eastern Europeans

Tibor Machan teaches’ philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama. He was smuggled out of Hungary in 1953. He recently edited The Main Debate: Communism versus Capitalism for Random House.

President Bush went to Poland and Hungary. last summer, and those who care about the resurgence of freedom in Eastern European countries should be concerned about the significance of these visits. As a Hungarian refugee, and also as someone very interested in political affairs, it concerns me that the Bush visit may begin a period of international blunders. Will Mr. Bush make clear to the leaders in these countries what is most important to their future both on the economic and political fronts—indeed, as viable, flourishing cultures?

The most important lesson the Polish and Hungarians can learn at this time is that they must build opportunities for self-help. This ‘means, among other things, that economically the worst thing for these societies would be to learn to depend on foreign aid from the United States and other governments. It would be best for them to create a truly hospitable business climate.

Yet the problem goes beyond economics, all the way to the kind of culture these societies might develop after years of having to dance to the Kremlin’s tune. One thing they do not need is further dependence on the decisions of the politicians of other nations—in either the Soviet Union or the United States. And getting involved in a massive aid program—whereby instead of making the business climate suitable for foreign investment, it is to foreign government help that they will look—is entirely ill-suited to becoming an independent society, a culture with its ownidentity and political independence.

The lesson of the value of political independence could be taught no better than by leaders of the freest society in the world, the United States. The very birth of the U.S. testifies to the importance of establishing political independence by means of economic self-sufficiency. Some Poles and Hungarians might believe that the way out from under the yoke of the Soviet Union is to cuddle up closely to the several major Western governments, but they are mistaken. Indeed some Hungarians are fully aware of this. Let us consider for a moment the Polish and Hungarian situations.

Both Poland and Hungary are supposed to be proof that the Soviet bloc is no longer true to its Stalinist ways. There are reports of thawing in the Soviet orbit. This has led to the view that there is a real chance for socialism with a human face, with its Stalinist, tyrannical elements fully shorn. A visit to Poland and Hungary confirms this impression. The thaw itself, of course, has much to do with such economic facts as Hungary’s benefit from Western trade and tourism.

Personal Testimony

There are other reports as well. Let us start with the most personal testimony I can think of, from my own mother, who now lives in Germany, coaches fencers in Austria, and has hardly a moment to herself because of the demands of her busy schedule. Yet she would never trade the hustle and bustle of her Western life for what she regards as the still basically phony atmospherics of contemporary Budapest. (She was allowed to leave at retirement age: socialism has no use for retired citizens.) By her account, “Up until recently it has been mostly surface stuff; the regime may still be able to resume its old style.” The full import of that remark may be better appreciated when expressed in the words of a Hungarian scholar who has had the rare privilege of travel in the West. In the early 1980s he spoke to me as follows:

No, you no longer find the kind of brutality in Hungary we experienced in the Stalinist era of Rakosi and immediately following the 1956 revolution. But why? Partly because it is no longer necessary—people have accepted the system and have come to learn how to live around it. The people no longer believe it can be gotten rid of by forcible retaliation against the regime and its Soviet backers. They no longer believe anyone from the West is going to help them—they certainly do not, as they used to, count on America for such help, even though they still wish for it. But should there be a revival of the hard-line attitude in the population, there is no good reason at all to think that the brutal approach would not be tried again.

This scholar, who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons, also mentioned in a letter to me that there recently have been more basic obstacles to the re-emergence of Stalinist Marxism in Hungary. They have to do in part with what has been going on since the 1956 revolution.

The plain fact is that there are no Marxists, in the sense the Soviets use that term, left in Hungary—or, for that matter, in most of the Eastern bloc nations. I would add that there are more Marxists, even of the soft type, in the West than in the Eastern bloc! The doctrine has been given up not just because of the use to which it was put. After all, there are many who are Marxists and considered Stalin an abomination. But the system does not work in a more profound sense: one cannot govern a society in terms of it. We cannot look at people as simply tools to prepare for a revolutionary future. Planning a society is literally impossible, and we now know this. Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and the rest did not know this, nor did their ideological supporters. Among Hungarian intellectuals no one believes in the possibility of a genuine socialist society, unless one distorts this term to mean something highly decentralized on the order of a kibbutz or convent. To allocate resources, to generate creative energy, to prepare for future needs, wants, and contingencies of actual people—rather than the homogeneous ant colony fantasized in orthodox Marxism/Leninism—one requires a free marketplace, period. We know this, the Poles know it, and I know some of the Russians are coming to realize it too.

Some Complex Realities

By now it clearly appears that many of Hungary’s leading intellectuals have changed philosophically. The prevailing economic philosophy is anything but socialist, even though for political reasons there are not yet major institutional changes that reflect this transformation. It is these changes in outlook and new ideas, in the midst of the intractable and devastating results of socialist mismanagement of the country—not merely the equally necessary thawing of Soviet socialism—that account for the “liberalization” we perceive in Hungary. But there must be more to the current transformation than the motivation to do something new, to abandon an experiment that never should have been tried in the first place.

Economics is just one aspect of life, and change in economic understanding will not suffice to produce lasting constitutional and institutional changes. In these other areas, where realities are more complex and hidden and do not stare you in the face as economic realities often do, there is an actual revoluti0n—a basic change—under way in Hungary.

Again, there is not much that can be reported—indeed, when some years ago I offered to do a major story on these developments for a national magazine, my sources begged me to desist: “You will give away the ball game? Suffice it to say that during the last decade, in the various corners of culture that are touched by the work of intellectuals of all disciplines and specialization, Hungarian statism and censorship have been gradually undermined. Slowly, but deliberately, the Hungarian intellectual community has been laying the foundation for a new culture. The reading materials, the works of art, and the dramatic offerings in Hungarian culture are once again recovering their earlier, pre-Nazi, post-Hapsburgian cosmopolitan and liberal flavor. The intellectual community has been making excellent use of the “thawing,” which is partly the result of heeding the lesson Milton Friedman has been teaching us for decades: with economic freedom you are bound to gain more political freedom. (Dr. Friedman’s books recently have been translated into Hungarian, and both Polish and Hungarian economists are openly turning to his free market theories to get help in their efforts to rejuvenate their economies.)

There is a lesson for us in this, and Western diplomatic and economic experts dealing with Eastern European affairs might pay heed to it: A society is in need of a vision of itself; the people need an integrating, broad political idea as to the basic principles the system should exhibit.

What is very scary is that Western liberal democracies are losing sight of this vision. We are now in a situation where those few prominent people who are espousing the vision of a free society are all economists. But their specialized discipline cannot be fully entrusted with the task of spelling out and creating the motivation to uphold the system. The economist is not in the business of setting priorities for us, but in the business of explaining what the consequences of various institutional policies are for our overall material well- being.

Western diplomats and’ foreign policy strategists should not, therefore, rely only on the advice of economic policy experts, but draw lessons from thinkers such as the American Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln. These individuals knew that America’s pre-eminence in the world did not depend merely on capitalism, but was the function of a deeper philosophical ideal, namely, that of individual sovereignty. That idea helped undo America’s worst institution, slavery. It may, if its leaders keep it in mind, undo the enslavement of people throughout the world.

And from a practical standpoint that is just what places like Poland and Hungary need: a fundamental commitment to individual liberty and, therefore, a self-regulating marketplace. So, by insisting on the basic ideals of freedom, Western diplomats in touch with the new leadership in Poland and Hungary will help to pave the way for the best possible kind of business recovery in the Eastern European countries—a recovery founded not on temporary public policy but on basic reform of the institutions of society.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.