No moral case for capitalism

Georgie Anne Geyer

October 21, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- FROM 1989 onward, after the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall fell, the prognoses in this capital for that long-closed world east of Austria were overwhelmingly positive. Russia and Eastern Europe would democratize and free-marketize!

That euphoria is why the sudden turn of mood here is so dramatic.

It was a recent Wednesday downtown on K Street at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, brilliant analyst of the East, was reluctantly bringing everybody down from those initial highs.

"There is no longer any central power in the Soviet Union," Brzezinski told the CSIS advisory board, "so there is no Soviet Union. It is a region of despair. For the rest of the century, we are dealing with insoluble problems."

A little later that day, Soviet specialist Stephen Sestanovich added to the gloom. Citing the extraordinarily revealing new poll and study of the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, which monitored "The Pulse of Europe" from Great Britain the Soviet Urals, he noted with concern that "what emerges are group attitudes toward the market that are broadly antithetical to marketization. There is opposition to the privatization of manufacturing and overwhelming opposition to privatization of resources.

"Planners do not know where to start. We are looking at the privatizing of 500,000 businesses. In the whole world, there were only 1,000 firms privatized in the last decade."

Another day, Arkady Volsky, a leading member of the Inter-Republic Economic Council, painted his own bleak picture at a meeting here of the National Foreign Trade Council Inc. Basically, he said that "the center," or the Russian federation, in trying to democratize the country, was meeting only the most bitter resistance from the republics and boondocks.

"When the national struggle with the center was initiated by them, we supported their aims," he said soberly. "But now, the republics . . . are moving not toward openness but toward the closing of their societies. Clans and corrupt nationalistic circles are coming to power."

The moral and ethical struggle over free markets and democracy was analyzed on a still deeper level when Margaret Thatcher spoke late in September at the Heritage Foundation's annual dinner. Indeed, these were watershed words, coming from the woman who single-mindedly turned Britain from socialism to capitalism.

"The practical case for capitalism has been made," she told the crowd of conservatives, "but what about the moral case? No economic system itself makes man good -- and capitalism is no exception."

It seems to me that we have several crucial themes here. All of them bob and weave about the rather important, but until-now neglected, question of what has to be inside the human being to make both democracy and free markets "work."

Two years ago, most American economists were saying surely, "Just change the economic structure in Russia, and the people will fall naturally into capitalism."

Instead, what we more and more see happening today is that, in the absence of the values and principles of original capitalism -- personal probity, a work ethic and sober reinvestment and capitalization strategies -- it is the racketeers in the Soviet Union who are taking over the economy. McDonald's now has men riding shotgun on their food trucks; Marlboro trucks have been constantly "hijacked," and whole trains simply "disappear." The picture is grim.

So what next? Certainly the American programs in Russia and Eastern Europe painstakingly teaching people the day-to-day ways of free enterprise (the National Endowment for Democracy, the Center for Democracy, and the University of South Carolina, to name just three) are doing the yeoman's work of the future. But above all, there is the moral question that Margaret Thatcher so providentially raised.

Everywhere in the East Bloc, but also in many areas in American life, we face now, without guidelines from the past, "the" question of the future. Can we produce new economic and political systems in the world by somehow artificially creating the morality that originally inspired their origins? If we cannot, the dire predictions I am hearing here will prove true, facing us with a future of breakdown and criminalization.

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