The Writing on the Wall
By Bryan Caplan
I’ve been thinking all day about what to write for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Here goes.
The conventional interpretation of the Wall: Socialism, a movement that began with wide-eyed idealism, was gradually corrupted. The first socialists dreamed of freeing the common man; but once their intellectual heirs were drunk on absolute power, they ended up shooting anyone who tried to escape their Workers’ Paradise.
My interpretation of the Wall: Socialism was born, lived, and died a totalitarian movement. The first socialists were not idealists; they were wannabe dictators. The later socialists practiced what the early socialists would have practiced if they got a chance. The most amazing thing about the Berlin Wall is that the world didn’t see it coming.
It’s easy to dismiss this as hindsight bias. But at least one man – the brilliant German classical liberal Eugen Richter – saw the Wall coming over sixty years before it went up. In 1891, decades and revolutions before Orwell’s Animal Farm, Richter published Pictures of the Socialistic Future. It’s a dystopian novel about what happens to Germany after a socialist takeover. The chapter on emigration is positively eerie. It begins:
[A] decree has been issued against all emigration without the permission
of the authorities. Socialism is founded upon the principle that it is
the duty of all persons alike to labour, just as under the old regime
the duty to become a soldier was a universally recognised one. And just
as in the old days young men who were ripe for military service were
never allowed to emigrate without authority, so can our Government
similarly not permit the emigration from our shores of such persons as
are of the right age to labour. Old persons who are beyond work, and
infants, are at liberty to go away, but the right to emigrate cannot be
conceded to robust people who are under obligations to the State for
their education and culture, so long as they are of working age.
Richter anticipates both the emigration policies and the rationalizations of the future DDR – although even he overlooked the fact that infants make excellent hostages. Question: How did he see the ugliness of the socialist future so clearly?
I submit that Richter repeatedly asked these “idealists” obvious hypotheticals like “What if a worker doesn’t like your ‘socialist paradise’?” and noted that the socialists responded with hysteria and evasion. And if that’s their response to critical questions before they have power, how do you think they’d respond to critical actions after they have power?
Richter’s dystopian novel explains that the socialist state welcomed the initial flight of “class enemies.” But then:
[U]seful people, and people who had really learnt something, went away in
ever-increasing numbers to Switzerland, to England, to America, in
which countries Socialism has not succeeded in getting itself
established. Architects, engineers, chemists, doctors, teachers,
managers of works and mills, and all kinds of skilled workmen,
emigrated in shoals. The main cause of this would appear to be a
certain exaltation of mind which is greatly to be regretted. These
people imagine themselves to be something better, and they cannot bear
the thought of getting only the same guerdon as the simple honest day
labourer. Bebel very truly said: “Whatever the individual man may be,
the Community has made him what he is. Ideas are the product of the
Zeitgeist in the minds of individuals.”
Of course, the socialists say that the emigration prohibition is temporary: Once people no longer wish to leave, they’ll be free to go!
As soon as our young people shall have received proper training in our
socialistic institutions, and shall have become penetrated with the
noble ambition to devote all their energies to the service of the
Community, so soon shall we be well able to do without all these snobs
and aristocrats. Until such time, however, it is only right and fair
that they should stay here with us.
The chapter closes with the inside scoop on enforcement. Let it never again be said that socialists don’t believe in incentives!
Under these circumstances the Government is to be commended for
stringently carrying out its measures to prevent emigration. In order
to do so all the more effectually, it has been deemed expedient to send
strong bodies of troops to the frontiers, and to the seaport towns. The
frontiers towards Switzerland have received especial attention from the
authorities. It is announced that the standing army will be increased
by many battalions of infantry and squadrons of cavalry. The frontier
patrols have strict instructions to unceremoniously shoot down all
fugitives. [emphasis mine]
The twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a day for great celebration. But the sad fact is that if the world had been perceptive enough to see the 19th-century socialists as totalitarian hate-mongers in idealist clothing, the Wall would never have been built in the first place.